Travel Log: London-Paris 2010

This is a travel log chronicling my adventures as I travel to England and (briefly) Paris from March 25th to April 5th, 2010.  There will be daily updates, all first-draft notes with little-to-no spell-checking.  The log will be taken down shortly after my return home and transformed into a more formal travel report.

Tuesday, March 23 – This is the plan; the plan is insane.

Over the past few years, I have used Science Fiction (and Fantasy, and Horror) conventions as an excuse to travel around North America, seeing cities I have always wanted to visit and generally turning into some kind of apprentice pseudo-business traveler.  None of my trips so far, however, had taken me outside North America.  While I was pondering that, news came in that the World Horror Convention would land in Brighton, England for its 2010 edition, and be organized by many of the same people who put together the fine 2007 World Horror Convention in Toronto.  Shortly after, fan-godfather Murray Moore pointed out to me in conversation that Eastercon (the biggest SF convention in England) would take place a week later in Heathrow.

That’s when I started making plans.  But I’m a restless traveler; the kind that rents a car in Calgary to go take a look at the Rocky Mountains for a day.  The kind that hops on a bus at 6:00 in Orlando for a one-day visit of Miami.  The kind that squeezes in two days in Chicago on the way to and from Madison, Wisconsin.  Four days in London in-between conventions seemed interesting, but then a chance reading of Ed Mirvish’s autobiography reminded me that the Eurostar service links London to Paris in 2.5 hours.  Four days in London? Not as interesting as two days in London and two days in Paris!

So, over the next eleven days, I will take a plane from Ottawa to Heathrow, take a bus from Heathrow to Brighton, attend the 2010 World Horror Convention, take a train from Brighton to London, get a guided tour of London, take the high-speed Eurostar train from London to Paris, get a guided tour of Paris, take the high-speed Eurostar train from Paris to London, attend Eastercon and fly home.  Are you feeling breathless yet?

Wednesday, March 24th – The first day is the hardest.

I have chills, scratchy eyes, attention deficit disorder and feel as if I’m in the first stages of a cold. No doubt about it: I’m ready to go.

The day immediately preceeding a trip is always the worst: As I run around prepping everything, all the stress signals are telling my body that I should stay home. I sleep less, worry more and do the OCD thing of checking and double-checking that I have packed everything. It’s maddening, but it’s routine.

What’s new this time around is that “the day before leaving” is also “the day I leave”: The only daily direct flight from London to Ottawa is a red-eye, leaving Ottawa at 23:05 and landing at Heathrow at 9:50 (a length of time that includes four timezone changes.) This means that I got to experience a fun full day of work (which isn’t as much fun when all you’re doing is shutting down activities and delegating for the next six days), then go home in Rockland, complete the frenzy of last-minute preparations, then depends on the kindness of my father to take me back to Ottawa at the airport. Whee.

Chances of sleeping on the plane? Fairly good, and I intend to give it a shot. Still, I expect this to register as one of my longest-ever days, especially given how, to fight jet-lag, I will do my best to stay awake until evening. In-between, it’s Ottawa to Heathrow to Brighton, by plane, bus (but no train. Yet.)

After sending a flurry of last-minute emails, doing dishes, triple-checking everything, I finally left home at 20:00 and, due to unusually light traffic, was at the airport at 20:45. What followed was the smoothest security check I’ve ever experienced so far: Five minutes, brisk speed through a single checkpoint, no shoes taken off, a simple walk through a metal detector while my stuff goes through the X-Ray machine… and done. This is how it’s done. Let me hug Ottawa Airport and refrain from my usual “security theater” rant for one. Huge bonus? Free wi-fi! Shocked! I AM SHOCKED!!!

So it is that I end up at the boarding lounge at 20:50, typing away the day’s entry before cracking open the first of my ten e-books loaded on my iPod. If all goes well, the next entry should be from Brighton.

Thursday, March 25 – No! Sleep! ‘Till Brighton!

Well, it wasn’t as easy or quick as I had hoped for, but I made it. Here’s the (very long) day.

3:00 – Upon boarding the plane, I reset my iPod and camera clock to London time: Plus four hours, which lands us at 3am. The plane is not full, and so I have no one sitting next to me. Departure is smooth as I read the first hundred pages of Rutherfurd’s London. This is my first transatlantic flight since 1992, and it’s not quite the same as the North American hops: This 767 is bigger than the usual Airbuses used by Westjet and AirCanada, and first-class (through which you have to pass to get to business, then cattle-class) sports fancy individual pods in which dwell rich pod-people. A pillow and blanket await us in each seat (the advantage of having no one next to me being that I can use a second pillow.) Dinner is served shortly after leveling off: Airplane food has a terrible reputation, but my microwaved chicken+rice is fine, the bread in unremarkable and the bean salad is… intended for another audience. I keep the water bottle and send back the chocolate fudge due to my Lent no-processed-deserts resolution. I grab a glass of water put it on my tray, cradle it with my finger and settle down to try to nap.

4:00 – Lights are turned off to encourage sleeping, but I’m already well on my way. I feel myself slowly drifting away… only to be WAKEN UP BY WATER IN MY LAP. That’s correct: In relaxing, I managed to spill and entire glass of cold water in my crotch. Nice; good thing that I’m wearing black, that no one is close enough to see the comedy event and that it’s still a five-hour flight. GGetting to sleep after that is more difficult. But eventually, the omnipresent white noise of the plane air recirculation soothes me to something approaching unconsciousness.\

8:00 – I come back to consciousness to be greeted almost immediately by a raisin muffin thrust in my face. I mumble thanks and start brainlessly eating breakfast before wondering whether raisin muffins break the whole no-processed-desert Lent resolution. As I’ve said before, I think that Lent resolutions were designed partly to give Christians rationalization powers equal to Talmudic scholars. Thus I determine that as per my existing breakfast-chocolate-milk exemption, the muffin classifies as breakfast and not desert. I also claim the whole middle-of-the-night-high-above-the-Atlantic-Ocean-with-no-other-options defense. And I *did* give up my furge earlier on. Nonetheless, I vow not to let sleepy-muffins happen again. Around me, the plane wakes up. I manage to read another hundred pages in Rutherfurd’s London before hearing the pilot tell us that we will be late by about 20-25 minutes given how Heathrow traffic is usually busy at this time of day.

10:15 – Passing through Heathrow is easy. Customs don’t take all that much time (although I was lucky regarding queuing) and the signalisation leading to the Central Bus Station where I’m supposed to board my coach to Brighton is fairly clear as well. Once at the station, I spot the area where my 747 bus will stop, then take care of washroom and lunch-buying chores. Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol is #1 best-seller at WHSmith. Then I settle down to wait… and wait…

11:15 – Departure time, and still not sign of my bus. The National Express employee keeps apologizing for delays due to a freeway accident slowing down all traffic between Heathrow and Gatwick airport. My bus is presumably part of the delay. Fifteen minutes pass, and a mystery bus with no indication of its route stops. There is considerable discussion between the driver and the NE employees. As some point, I hear something about Brighton-transfer-something-something and I don’t move: I’ve learned enough to not jump at half-marked trails. A bunch of people board the mystery bus until it’s said to be full. I still don’t move, something that I get to appreciate when the mystery bus driver nearly backs into another passing bus, and then has to try his backing-up manoeuver twice in order to get out of his boarding berth.

11:50 – My patience is rewarded when a shiny well-indicated 747 rolls into a berth. But after letting his passengers disembark, the driver locks up all doors and sits in his seat. The NE employee who explained about the delays goas to the driver and has another epic discussion, while the handful of us waiting for the 747 look on. At some point, the doors open and she allows a few people to board: we’re going to Brighton! But wait: our driver mumbles something about the bus going to Brighton, but its number changing. The handful of us on the bus are concerned but not alarmed.

12:00 – Whee! We’re finally rolling onto the freeway, headed for Gatwick airport. This is a pretty good opportunity to study the British countryside, eat my lunch (I shouldn’t have picked the Coronation Chicken, although it’s not too bad after the first few bites.) and update the day’s adventures so far. The British countryside is… undefinably odd. Even though all the pieces are understandable and easily identifiable, the trucks don’t look wike our trucks, the traffic signals are subtly different and, oh, WE’RE DRIVING ON THE WRONG GOSH-DARNED SIDE OF THE ROAD. Fortunately, someone else is at the wheel!

12:50 – Gatwick airport. Well, that’s not very exiting: We stop at one stop, pick up another handful of passengers, go to another stop, pick up a few other passengers, switch drivers, and done.

13:00 – On the road again, this time straight to Brighton. It’s now raining. Fighting drowsiness is a losing battle. I give up after spotting a sign telling drivers that “Tiredness can kill. Take a break.”

13:30 – I wake up as we enter Brighton proper, stopping a few times befor making it to our terminus. The World Horror Convention hotel is right next door, so I register and pick up our complimentary heavy bag of free books. I spot a few familiar faces, but end up concluding that I’m better off finding my hotel and dropping off what’s not needed. It’s more wet than raining outside, which is a good thing given how long I spend on Brighton’s main street. The walk to the hotel is longer than I expected (a detour doesn’t help) but I eventually find it and register without incident.

14:00 – The hotel is a boutique hotel with themed room, and mine is named for an artist. Fortunately, it’s “default vintage” as a style and it’s a bit more interesting to poke around than the usual chain hotel. Wifi doesn’t seem to be working in the room. I try plugging my laptop through my electrical adapter… (saves file) …and that seems to work after a protacted battle with the grounding plug. Still no wifi, though. I rearrange a few things in my backpack to shed weight and head for the lobby’s wifi connection. Still no luck. But it’s sunny outside, so I think I’m going to go out and play.

14:30 – Walking around Brighton/Hove. First objective: Locate busy street with various commercial establishment. Done: Two laudrettes, one produce shop and one Tesco Express. I can live with this. Next: Come back to the convention hotel via the Boardwalk. This is obviously still off-season, and windy, and cold, and the boardwalk is just a shadow of what it must be in the summer. I get a few good pictures of the ominous “West Pier” along the way.

15:45 – Slip into the “Zombies!” panel and catch an interesting discussion tail. It turns out that the meeting room has fully-featured free WiFi. Yaaaaay. I catch up on email.

16:00 – While I’m checking email and nicely out of the way, I might as well stay for the following panel, which explains what happens at conventions such as the WHC. It’s basic stuff for people who are at their first such event, but it becomes more interesting in the second half as the panelists exchange tales of outrageous conventions, drinking, and dealing with difficult guests.

17:00 – A quick tour at the hotel’s Regency Lounge, which acts as the convention’s main lobby, reveals that WiFi si also excellent in there. The sun having cleared away the clouds for a moment, the place reveals its excellent view of the Brighton Pier. A look around the room also reveals my friends Murray and Mary-Ann Moore, who are part of the reason I’m in Brighton in the first place. After wowing ourselves with the content of the complimentary grab-bag given to all convention attendees, we agree to go out for dinner. We end up at Max’s, the restaurant of the nearby Radisson Blu hotel. After a certain time (we were early for the dinner menu), I get a “correct manor” Chicken Cesar salad (with anchovies, apparently) entree plus a sole. Caviar is included, although it’s smothered in a sauce that makes everything taste like the sauce. Service is slow; we talk a lot; table talk around us is about publishing short stories. By the time we’re done, it’s dark outside. (Which makes sense given how they haven’t advanced their clocks yet. It’s a small price to pay for just a 4-hour jet lag.)

20:00 – I’m ready to go home, but there’s something I want to check first: Western Street, which ends up being Brighton’s main shopping street. I locate grocey stores, banks, HMV, bookstores, even Subways and a Lego store: basically, everything I need. The Churchill Square shopping center looks closed, but that will only give me something else to check out tomorrow. It’s quite a bit colder now that it’s night. Back at the hotel, my experiments with either the hotel computers or the wifi are unsuccessful. (I end up climbing the stairs back up to my room with my iPod in hand, constantly refreshing to find a favourable wifi signal. There aren’t any.)

21:00 – Back at the hotel room, it’s colder than I would like; I double up the blankets on the bed since I can’t find anything looking like temperature controls. My jet lag has been vanquished. It may be 17:00 at home, but I really really want to go to sleep. The day’s updates later, I do so.

Friday, March 26 – Horror in Brighton

7:30 – Any day where I wake up earlier than my set alarm clock is a good one, and so by 7:15 I am awake, and by 7:30 the construction noise outside (barely muffled by woodden single-pane windows) is enough to make me go out of bed. The shower is not awful, but close: Water pressure is slight (good thing it’s a gravity-powered top showerhead) and the water’s temperature is barely tepid. Can you say “Heritage Boutique Hotel”? I could if my teeth would stop chattering. Hey, only three more of those showers!

8:00 – Having cleaned up a little, I drop by the hotel restaurant for the breakfast and find that just the cereals and toast are enough to get me going; no need to order anything more. I try marmite spread on toast, which can best (but not completely) be described as molasses-thick soy sauce.

8:30 – Exploring the downtown city streets again, with good results: Preston Street has an even closer launderette, while I finally find what looks like a trustworthy ATM at a Western Street HRSB. My debit card works! Then it’s off to the nearby Churchill Square megamall: it’s an american-style shopping mall. Most stores are closed, but the WH Smith is open and I finally get to experience a British bookstore: As I had expected, it’s an alternate-universe thing: I know the authors, I know the books, but the trim size and covers are completely different. Neaaat. I see at least one book that I have been expecting and that hasn’t come out in North America. Hmmm… I purchase nothing, but vow to be back.

9:00 – Outside the WH Smith, the store are waking up – three of them open their doors as I walk past. From the Churchill Square mall, I make my way to something completely different: The Lanes, a maze of small (really small!) streets with brick pavement that host a bunch of independant boutiques. Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley? Yup. Alas, I find that it’s really, really easy for those small (really small!) streets to be blocked –“Faites place!” says a teached to a bunch of French students huddled around a candy shop. I exit the lanes close to the Convention hotel and see Farah Mendlesohn wave to be through a window at the Radisson Blu restaurant we were at the day before. At the convention hotel, the lounge has been rearranged in a panel room setup, and I get to glimpse the horror that will be the convention setup, with about five rooms arranged not in parallele with accress from a common point, but serially, where you have to get through one to go to the other. This is not, I think, going to work all that well. I’m sitting at the back of the room not to bother anyone with the typing when a maid comes in to vacuum. Relocation to the other meeting room provides an improvement in non-vacuuming, but not wi-fi speed. I try to pass the time in-between page loads by updating my buffer file. (This probably doesn’t need to be explained, but I keep a text file on my computer in which I update my log when I can’t get Internet access. Then I only need to connect to my web site, upload the content-so-far and be done with it. It was developped at a time when internet connections were a lot more primitive than they are now… but it’s funny how assuming “bad connections” is never obsolete.) As you can see, I manage to upload this.

10:00 – Really interesting panel on work-for-hire: novelizations, ghostwriting, tie-in novels, etc. All professionals on the panel are experienced pros and have a lot to say. Numerous horror stories (including cancelled finished books and nine month’s work wasted without pay) are heard. But the work looks interesting, and they explain why. Coming out of the panel, I see Natasha Beaulieu and Claude Lalumière.

11:00 – First free-form exploration of the convention. The hotel is a maze no matter which way you go: The above-ground way takes you through convention room 2 (optional; there is also a tiny corridor), then a restaurant, then a bar, then a lounge, then the two tiny room that make up the dealer’s room. The underground way is just as interesting, going down through a lounge-corridor, the poetry room, then a Z-like tiny passageway, then doubling back up to take the stairs back up to the lobby. And, by “tiny”, I mean corrdiors that can only be used by one person at a time. Whee for heritage hotels. I am not the only one complaining about this. There is interesting stuff in the dealer’s room despite the lack of space. I don’t find the anthology I’m looking for (stuck at the airport, will be available later, I am later told), but I do get the collected stories of Scott Edelman. I also meet Toronto fan/dealer Peter Halasz, who gives me a Canadian-flag pin for my badge. The rest of the hour is spent at the “Vampire Cat Angels” panel on anthologies, again with interesting discussion.

12:00 – Second trip to the dealer’s room, this time (partly) alongside Claude and Natasha. I hear Kim Newman and Scott Edelman talk about “Quadrophenia”, a seventies film partly set in Brighton that I saw a few months ago. I find (and buy) Paul McAuley’s Cowboy Angels, a novel that I have been unable to buy in Canada and at american convention (not even through The rest of the hour is spent at the small-press panel, which is really interesting in part due to the interplay between Peter Crowther and Bret Alexander Savoie.

13:00 – Break time at the convention, which is a pretty good excuse to wander through sunny downtown Brighton. I try to locate the Post Office on the map (it’s there, but closed), get “lost” on the outskirts of The Lanes, then get to the Churchill Square. The whole area is markedly busier than at 9:00, which isn’t necessarily a good thing given how it feels as if no one really know how to walk. (This isn’t just the walk-right, walk-left thing: I tried finding a pattern and there isn’t.) At the WH Smith, I sneak a look at the Post Office (which is too busy) and it looks as if I will be mailing home a number of smaller packages. Then I take off on Queen’s Street, another major commercial artery, and somehow end up at Subway. It’s comforting, but there are differences: The cold meats for the BLT aren’t pre-packaged together, and they put both carrots and corn as vegetables in the sub. North of Subway, I snoop around a Tesco Express and get small fruit salads. Then up again farther north, I accidentally discover the train station I will be using Friday (news report are now talking about a post-Easter British Rail strike, which will suck but at least take place after I leave the country. Coming back from the train station, I get rained on a bit. (If there’s something about Brighton, it’s that the weather changes every five minutes.) Adding to my tourism tally, I walk past the Brighton Dome and Summer Palace.

14:15 – I meet Peter Halasz near the hotel, and discover that it’s not as late as I thought. The rest of the hour is spend checking my email (the connection is slow, but workable) while listening to a panel about poetry. It’s more interesting than you imagine, particularly because the panelists know they’re speaking to an audience of non-specialists.

15:00 – Panel about influential horror-movie books. Most interesting when it deviates into a discussion of movie criticism, including why There Will Be Blood is similar to a horror movie, and the genre difference between Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs.

16:00 – I update the day’s adventures while listening to an all-star panel discussing vampires. How many stars? Well, the writer of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, best-selling Kelly Armstrong, legends Melanie Tem and Chelsy Quinn Yarboro and Simon Clark. Interesting stuff about a (un)dead-horse topic.

17:00 – Free time plus problem to solve equals adventure! I decide to take care of my vexing “Must get stamps for postcards, must mail books home” problem by doing the tedious work of buying packing boxes and taking them to the post office. I know where there’s a nearby post office (WH Smith) and so get there, grab two boxes (it’s the biggest size they’ve got… and yet still too small for it all), wait in line five minutes… only to be told that the boxes can’t be purchased at the post office, but at the WH Smith checkout. Charming. Back at the hotel, I manage to pack both bokes with no room to spare in fifteen minutes. Then I rush to the post office to get there before six… and find out that they close at 17:30. I bring back the boxes to the hotel, but at least I now know I can get there and back in fifteen minutes.

18:00 – I have no particular objective in mind, so I walk down the boardwalk again (this time on the upper level) and make my way to the Brighton Pier in the increasing darkness. The Pier is cold and dark and a shadow of what it must be like at high noon in the summer. Nonetheless, the waves crashing down the shore make for a great photo opportunity, and so do the shut-down attractions. Taking picture of the shore from the extreme end of the pier, a woman shows me her own pictures of the darkening clouds and says “Doesn’t look like the apocalypse?” We strike up a conversation; it turns out she’s originally from Bath, now lives in London (and *hates* it) and is in Brighton for interviews which, she hopes, will lead her back to Brighton. I learn quite a bit about local lore and what not to like about London. I end the hour at the hotel, checking email and searching Google Maps for another Post Office.

19:00 – The Mass Autograph Party being in its usual state of disarray, I venture outside and on the eastern side of the hotel to look at the location of the Post Office. It’s there, but it, too, has closed down at 17:30. Nonetheless, it will open at nine, and looks like a pretty good backup plan of the WHSmith one is closed. I also stop at the Tesco Express to get myself a supper. Back at the hotel, I say hi to a few fellow Canadians, get Scott Edelman’s book autographed and debrief the day with the Moores and Claude Lalumière. Since there isn’t much left for me to do, it’s an early return to the hotel via Western Street (where I hope to spot the Mailbox Ltd again for packing tape, to no avail) with the intent to work on my movie review columns before tomorrow’s deadline.

20:00 – Hotel room sweet hotel room. The Tesco Sushi is awful (it’s the rice that’s the weakest link) but the Cajun Chicken Wrap is quite a bit better. So is the fruit salad.

20:30 – At work on the movie reviews. I complete one of them, write another from scratch, revise the other 7000 words and send it to my editor. The WiFi connection seems quite a bit more solid. I had estimated that it would take me an hour to revise my mystery film column, and two hours to complete and revise my sf/fantasy column. Despite the handicap of working in a room without a decent desk, and without my usual keyboard, I get it done in pretty much that predicted amount of time.

23:30 – The wifi fails at the worst possible moment, and I lose an intricate email that took my twenty minutes to put together. Gaaah.

24:00 – This summary of the day being completed and uploaded, I call it a night.

Saturday, March 27, 2010 – Loathing in Brighton

8:00 – I wake with the alarm, taking in news of impending snow later during the week. The theme continues in the bathroom, as the shower water isn’t even lukewarm: It’s COLD. How cold? Cold enough that the best way to shower is to stand under the cold water to rinse (panting and shivering), stop the water to soap (vigorously), then turn back the water to rinse (and repeat as needed). I didn’t sign up for military showers! Only one more day of this to go…

(Since I’m not happy about the hotel, let me describe aspects of it to you. You can’t just enter the building: you have to ring so that the clerk can buzz you in. (Guests are issued an automated passcard with their hotel keys.) Then, to get to your room, you can either take the one-person lift, or take the stairs. I usually take the stairs, which means going through a side door, climbing up three flights of stairs clockwise, then turn right, open a door, climb up a tiny flight of (unlit) stairs counterclockwise, then turn right and finally reach my room –which is the farthest one in the entire hotel. The room itself has carpet even in the bathroom (don’t look at the edges of the carpet if you don’t want to think about mold), two radiator with a knob that goes from one to five (how does that work? If I crank it to 5 all night long, will I wake in 35-degree heat?) and the much-cursed cold shower.)

8:30 – At the restaurant hotel, I end up ordering the “Full Brighton Breakfast” in addition to the toast and bowl of cereal. I’m not overly impressed: Bacon, egg, beans and sausage are OK, but the potatoes are indifferent, the fried mushroom are not a noteworthy addition, and either is the fried half-tomato. Still, it’s included in the hotel bill and it does start the day well enough.

9:00 – I take two hours to solve two problems. First up: Laundry! Using the nearby launderette on Preston Street, I start the washing cycle, go to the WH Smith to get packing tape (the mailbox ltd is closed on weekends.), get back to the launderette, switch clothes from the washer to the dryer, read a chunk of my Hamilton book and take the clothes back to the hotel room. Then I tape and address the two parcels and head over to the WH Smith Post Office and stand in line. Ten minutes later, we’re at the weighing and costing stage: I manage not to wince, shout or cry at the total price quoted. It’s *really* expensive. No, *really*. I’m not even going to hint at how expensive it way: That’s how expensive it was. At that point, I also grab stamps for mailing postcards back to Canada. I manage to get the postcards from a small shop in The Lanes on my way back.

11:15 – Finally back at the convention, I slip into the “Translation” panel (starring an all-new cast of characters rather than the usual suspects from those kind of panels in America) and address the postcards while listening to the panel. Vonarburg, Trudel and Meynard (separately and as McAllister) all get very favorable mentions from Doug Smith without any prompting from me.

12:00 – Noon-time means tourism time! I hike all the way to the Duke of Yorks, the oldest cinema in the UK (It’s celebrating its hundredth anniversary!) and come back via London Road. Nearer the hotel, I stop by the nearby Water?? grocery store to get lunch: Tikki Massala Chicken wrap and fruit salad. I hike up St.James until the end of the street, then come back approaching the pier from the East. It’s not that cold, but it feels cold: Walking briskly in 15-degree rainy weather is always uncomfortable in-between warm sweat and cold wind. At times, it feels as if I’ve been uncomfortable since landing in Heathrow.

13:30 – The convention is quiet (its lunch brek is 13:00-14:00), so I settle down in one of the programming room to catch up on email and web pages which munching (discreetly) on my lunch.

14:00 – A panel on scripts that were never filmed (or, more accurately, the frustrations and wasted time of screenwriters) with three people with real-world experience in the movie business. Fascinating, in part due to the look at the way most of the industry really operates.

15:00 – A free-form hour, since the panel I want to see is packed enough to challenge anyone from coming in. A quick Bonjour to Natasha Beaulieu, a trip to the dealer’s room (no purchases; my Royal Mail experience has cured me of acquisition fever for a few days.), a promise to Peter halasz to write the true story of the Winnipeg WHC, a traumatizing trip to the hotel’s downstairs bathroom, and finally a few minutes at a panel on reprint anthology, which is predictably interesting.

16:00 – A panel on “Breaking into the Business” from editors reminds me that this World Horror Convention has been lighter than usual on the whole “wannabee writer” aspects of things. Still, it hasn’t gone away, and the eager authors asking questions are a reminder of that. It looks as if I’m taking notes, but I’m really typing up the day’s adventures so far.

17:00 – One last panel for the day, and it proves to be a good one: “state of the art”, with a half-dozen of horror pros all riffing off each other and more or less skirting the edge of their assigned subject. One author is notably tone-deaf and keeps making tautological intervention that suck the humor out of discussion, but the others are swift at avoiding the potholes. Despite the interest of the panel, I leave early, because…

17:45 – I’m seeing a movie! OK, I’m conflicted about going to see a movie on holidays. Obviously, it’s something that you could do at home, and so not a very good way to spend a few hours in a foreign land. On the other hand, well, it does cut down on the number of things to do back home, and the experience of seeing a movie elsewhere can be instructive. So that’s how I end up at the Brighton Odeon to go see KICK-ASS (which won’t be out in America for a few more days) and study the movie-going differences: The seats are assigned (which I soon hate given how you’re stuck in a certain seat no matter the yoobs sitting next to you), the pre-show ritual is slightly different and dozens of other minor differences. The film itself is one of those that make me feel old: The violence is hypocritical, played for laughs (and wow does this audience laugh at the creepiest, least-appropriate times) and seems to take up what I like least about comic-book culture. Sigh.

20:00 – An attempt to go eat Fish & Chips fails due the realization that the restaurant is about to close. In end up at a nearby grocery store for a delicious alternative: sandwiches, and a fruit salad, which I end up eating at my hotel room, in-between reading a few blogs and going to sleep early given how England undergoes its own time-change that night. An attempt to check the shower temperature reveals hot water and clarifies my theory about the hotel not having enough hot water to service all morning showers; I IMMEDIATELY SHOWER. I go to bed at 23:00, and advance the clock to 24:00.

8:05 – I get up shortly after the alarm that I had forgotten to activate. There is, oh goodness, hot water for the shower and the the room is warm thanks to my turning up the thermostat. Clearly, I’m getting the hang of this hotel.

Sunday, March 28 – From Brighton to London.

8:30 – Short breakfast (just the bowl of cereal, not the full breakfast. People around me are ordering the breakfast but telling them not to put in the mushrooms) One last check of the hotel room, and then check-out. One last cloudy, humid walk along the boardwalk, on my way back to the Royal Albion. Given how I’m lugging my clothes-bag, I’m not going to be quite as mobile today.

9:00 – Sitting in the main panel room of the WHC, I compose a blog post (including a picture of the view from outside the window where I’m writing).

10:00 – I’m not quite done with the blog post, but the room becomes a lot more interesting as Kim Newman starts interviewing Dennis Etchison. I complete the blog post as the interview ends.

11:00 – A panel on Awards, which present a different perspective that the usual American one. I write the day’s adventures so far.

12:00 – The objective of the hour is “Fish and Chips!” and the place to go for it is the Harry R??? Fish-and-chip restaurant on the other side of the street. It opens a few minutes after 12:00, and I am one of the first clients and served in a flash. (Which is probably a bad idea given that the kitchen is probably not yet fully revved-up, but -hey- I’ve got a schedule to keep! My place end up facing the Brighton Pier sign: Several attempts to take both the meal and the sign in a photo produce dismal results. I’m OK with the fish, not as impressed by the chips (they need to be Thinner! Spicier! Browner!) and downright left nonplussed by the mashed peas. Ah well; at least it’s fun to play with the malt vinegar, tartar sauce and ketchup to spice things up. Going back to the convention hotel, I run in Natasha Beaulieu, who has already invited me to a tea tasting at a nearby establishment; we walk there together.

13:00 – By some kind of dark sorcery, Natasha has located a wonderfully kitschy tea room mashing together all kinds of memorabilia in a context as insane as it it rich in conversation-starters. The five of us are cramped around a table draped with a Union Jack. (The table next to us is draped with a rainbow place, and I’m sitting in my hands not to say that the Tea Shop was right next door to a gay shop. The taxi driver who brought three of the guests certainly talked about there being “a lot of queens in Brighton” –exact quote!) In any case, we order and get tea, study the absurdly prescriptive set of tea-drinking instructions provided to guests (“no disrespecting the royal family on consequences of being expulsed from the the establishment”), make conversation and have a merry good time. I do make first-time use of my Lent “restaurant” exception given that they serve us a big plate of biscuits. I only take three –but even after the five of us are done with the biscuits, there are about fifteen of them left on the plate.

14:30 – Time to go! I big goodbye to my tea companions and walk to the train station. Along the way, I discover yet another cool area of Brighton (and inevitably find my way to the public library –I swear I’ve got a magnet for those things.) before making it to the station. I’m a hour earlier than my schedule (I’m trying to avoid any possible rush-hour complications in London), but I had fortunately purchased an open ticket, and so am able to board an earlier train. What pretty wonderful about the Brighton-London ride (and possibly others) is that the process isn’t that much more complicated than taking a subway.

15:15 – Away we go! In front of me in the train is a forty-something blonde woman who keeps checking her pocket mirror –the area around her left eye is badly scratched, as if she had a scrape with someone else the night before. I’m dying to ask, but that conversation has so many potential failure points that I chicken out. I finish the first Hamilton novel, get through the first 10% of China Mieville’s The City and the City, and keep advancing in Rutherfurd’s London. The trip is uneventful, although it is cool to see the countryside, and the estates that lord over the farmland.

16:15 – Finally in London! While it would have been possible to take the Underground straight from the train station, I decide to walk to the Bank station where I would have had to transfer to the Central Line. I get to walk the length of the London Bridge (it doesn’t fall down), take pictures of the Tower Bridge, see The Pickle! (The Swiss Re ovoid tower, known as the Gherkin, which I always call “The Pickle!” with a squeal of delight. But more about The Pickle! later.), walk down King William Street and reach Bank station, where I purchase an Oyster card with #22 on it, which should at least last me through the first leg of my London trip.

16:44 – Bank Station. My first encounter with the Underground couldn’t possibly be any better. Clear signs, uncomplicated payment (with the Oyster), fast easy service. I reach North Acton without fuss and even get to read some more of Rutherfurd’s novel.

17:15 – At North Acton, my Google Street View research pays off: It looks exactly like what I had imagined, and I find both the Tesco Express and the way to the hotel without trouble. Check-in at the hotel (obviously aimed at business travelers) is easy, and the room is the complete opposite of my former Granville Hotel room: clean, sparse, modern Nordic lines. The bathroom shower is open: There is a partition, but no stop-gap or door between the shower and the toilet area. Just a drain. The potential of unintentional hilarity here makes my squirrel-sense tingle. There is, predictably enough, no Internet available. I’ll deal with this later, because for now, I’m…

17:45 – Headed back to London! It would be ludicrous to stay at the hotel for the evening when I can just as well get an early start on my tourism. First, I walk the hotel neighborhood and spot the launderette I may end up using in two days. Then I take the underground back to Bank station (might as well pick up where I left off) and immediately head towards The Pickle! Temporarily forgoing all attempts at map-studying, I just walk the streets, get pleasantly lost, and have to circle a neighborhood before making it to the base of The Pickle! Many pictures are taken. Then it’s off to The Tower, which has been amusingly transformed into a national monument. Then crossing the Tower Bridge (many, many pictures in the increasing dusk), and making my way west, to the Millennium Bridge. Darkness falls; the rain begins to fall but nothing can dampen the fizzy neuron-rewiring pleasure of exploring a new city. Everything feels safe –it helps a lot that there aren’t that many people out on a rainy Sunday evening, and those who do are even more blatant than I am in telling the world that they are tourists. The millennium bridge leads straight to St Paul’s Cathedral (which is nicely illuminated), and that’s when I head further west on Fleet Street. I’m amazed to see how empty a city of 12 million people can be. Granted, everything is closed, and this isn’t much of an area if you’re not working there –but still: at times, I’m basically alone in the rain.

20:30 – I decide to call it a day and head for the nearest Underground station, which happens to be Chancery Lane, via Chancery Lane Road. The return to North Acton is uneventful.

21:15 – Stop at the Tesco Express, where I pick up a late supper. I now actively resent my Lent resolution, given how many new sugary treats there are on display and how I can’t eat any of them. I grumble in my fruit salad. There’s one thing I can’t seem to find in UK convenience stores: Almonds. Salted, smoked almonds, in particular: Those happen to be my favorite salty calorie-boosters, and all I can find is cashews instead.

21:30 – In my hotel room, updating the day’s adventures and eating supper. The Southern Chicken Wrap is unremarkable (reminds me that “southern” chicken refers to another country’s “south”, which may explain a lot), the fruit salad is delicious, but the cashews remind me why I prefer almonds.

22:15 – All right; time to cough up the money for an Internet connection. I pay; go back to my room… it doesn’t work. I try it again in the lobby… it doesn’t work. I go the the reception, get more information, demonstrate it to them… it works. Well huh: Even I am not immune to those things. In any case: I update the travel blog and check email.

Monday, March 29 – The Total London Experience

What a city. What a day. Now, for the replay:

7:00 – My iPod tells me it’s time to wake up. I shower (and as predicted, the door-less arrangement is messy, although nothing particularly hilarious occurs), and come out of the washroom in time for the TV to start at 7:15, as set up the day before. (When in doubt; two alarm clocks) I quickly prepare, go downstairs to check my email and head over to the Tube station. (Seeing the line inside the Tesco, I don’t even try stopping for breakfast.)

7:45 – Wheee to London city center, transferring at Oxford Circus, then to Victoria. Taking the Tube at this hour truly shows the much-refined triumph of the London underground: A *lot* of people are using it, and the entire crowd moves at a terrifying pace. Fortunately, the signs are big, the decisions are easy and I don’t even get a chance to make a fool of myself. That Underground thing? As good as advertised.

8:15 – So I’m out of Victoria Underground station, on my way to the Grey Line/Golden Tour terminal. Great. Except, as it turns out, that I have to clue where the terminal is. I have no pre-marked map of the area (what was I thinking?); a walk around the block yields no useful clue; maps of the area fail to show a “Fountain Square”. I grab on the the loosely-indicated “Tourist information” sign… but then can’t find the booth in the massive Victoria Train station. The clock is ticking, the station is large, the booth is tiny… but I find it. The clerk’s as nonplussed as I am about the address, but gets a Golden Tour brochure that gives a simple plan from Victoria Station to the terminal. Hurrah!

8:35 – Yikes: No wonder why I couldn’t find the terminal on the maps: Fountain Square is a glorified atrium in a building that’s half-covered, half-open to the elements. As it turns out, it’s adjacent to the “Victoria Coach terminal” (…and Christian goes ‘aaah!’) My relief at finding the station is tempered by the lengthy lines of people waiting for their tours. There’s no one at my sign, which makes it even more terrifying. But then a small family joins me. Then a brassy red-headed woman (“Trish”) comes to us and barks to follow her. This, in a nutshell, would be much of the tour experience. But wait, because it gets better: The coach bus is already filled with people (now I realize that they must have been led to the bus minutes earlier, leaving no one at the sign until I went there) and indeed by the end of the prepping period, the bus is filled to capacity. This, to put it mildly, is unprecedented in my five years of bus tour experience: Usually, the bus is a fifth to a third full, and the guided tour experience is a lot more personalized. But then again; this is London, and the guided tours are 50% more expensive than in other cities because there are a lot of people booking them. After non-hilarious “pick one of those last half-dozen seats, and make sure you don’t end up splitting the couples boarding after you”, I end up sitting to a father from New Jersey who’s keeping watch over his two kids across the aisle. Still, hey-hey-hey, I get a mid-bus right-side window seat with a window that extends to the seat in front of me: The best.

9:00 – The first leg of the tour is a roll through the upper-scale Belgravia neighborhood, with humble row-units going for a cool million pounds. We’re shown (via discreet policeman stationed at the entrance) Margaret Thatcher’s residence. Man embassies, monuments and shopping districts follow, from Harrods to Wellington Arch to Harvey Nichols to a Monument about “Animals in War”. We briefly stop to admire the golden grandiosity of the Prince Albert monument. Bade Powell House impresses no one but me. We pass on a street named “Petty France” (there’s got to be a story there, but my Googling time is short) If one of the reasons to book a guided tour is to look at areas I never would have visited by myself and won’t visit again, then this tour is hitting its marks.

10:00 – Our first stop of the day is at, where else, Westminster’s Abbey. We have fifteen minutes, enough to snap the shots we want from the Abbey and from the Big Ben tower (we also learn that “Big Ben” is the name of the bell, not the tower.) I get back early, but others don’t: As the bus is speeding up, five minutes after the agreed-upon time to departure, the Italian family waves frantically at the bus to stop. We do –and no one is ever late after that incident.

10:30 – The second leg of the trip is very short and takes us to the government/royalty side of the city. We pass by Downing street and stop shortly thereafter. “This is slightly illegal” warns the guide to encourage us to disembark quickly: we have stopped in a no-stopping zone. We are, as it turns out, at the Whitehall Horse Guards, where we get to see the stables and lounge around a small museum dedicated to an executive unit of the British Empire. This second stop also inaugurates the “follow the yellow sun umbrella” steeple-chase that would characterize the rest of the tour. Our guide moves quickly, and it’s practically a frantic chase to keep up. Most guided tours are laid-back affairs with interminable down-times and comfortable stops. This isn’t. On our way back to the bus, we catch an up-close passing of the guard (the timing is such that our tour guide is either lucky (I doubt it) or has a frightening sense of what happens when.)

11:00 – Aaaand we are back on the bus, going past a number of familiar attractions again, on our way to Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard ceremony. Of all the strange things that have happened today, this is the strangest: What looks like thousands of people are massed over lawns, sidewalks and a fountain. Our guide rushes through the crowds and traffic signals, landing us at a decent spot moments before it begins. The size of the crowd surrounding the are is unbelievable, and everyone has a camera at the end of their outstretched hands. I ask if it’s like that all the time, and our guide answers that it’s a bit higher because of Easter, but otherwise pretty much –and it’s worse in the summer. Regiment One marches and parades; Regiment Two marches and parades; then we race back to the bus.

11:30 – We delve a bit deeper into the real London as our bus weaves through tiny streets (hey, “Petty France” again!) and the riverside drive to get to the Covent Garden shopping area.

12:00 – We are at Covent Garden to eat: Most of the bus has chosen “lunch included” and so we stop at a restaurant that must do good business serving busloads of tourists, because we are efficiently shuffled upstairs and served. Being the lone and pitiable single man on a trip usually taken by families and couples, I end up at the table of a charming New York family (Dad, Mom, Daughter. Live in Long Island; works in Manhattan: I suspect well-off folks) We talk a bit, but half an hour into our lunch break, I’m done with my meal (chicken, potatoes, vegetables and gravy; not bad, actually) and I’m positively itchy to hit the streets; I excuse myself and go.

12:30 – It'[s quite a shopping area they’ve got at and around Covent Garden. The shopping complex itself is a half-covered, half-open produce-and-craft arrangement, but the streets surrounding the area are filled with mid-range shops and chains.

13:00 – Back aboard the bus. We are now technically on a different tour, this time of “The City of London” rather than “The City of Westminster”. We are quickly led to St. Paul’s cathedral.

13:15 – I’m not much for places of worship, but St. Paul’s is something else. Fantastic architecture, impressive sense of space, etc. Our guide goes quickly through the main highlights, but it’s nearly impossible to get everything she says when there are something like 60 people always following her. But no matter: the place speaks for itself. The craft that went into this place is incredible; no wonder it took 35 years to build, and has been upgraded ever since. The best part of the trip is perhaps in the crypt, where St. Paul architect, Sir Christopher Wren, is buried without much more than a covering stone and a plaque, which says “Reader, if you’re looking for a monument, look around” (it sounds better in Latin). On our way out of the crypt, I make my own discovery unannounced by our guide: Looking at a familiar bust (“Wilfrid Laurier?”), I read the inscription and find out that our first Prime Minister, McDonald, is buried at St. Paul. It’s a bit of a shock to emerge from the crypt into the crassly materialistic gift shop and cafe. It has started to rain by the time we’re out of the cathedral.

14:15 – It’s a quick trip to the parking garage where we leave the bus and head for the Tower of London. It’s still raining quite a bit, which prompts our guide to give part of the prepared speech about the Tower on the bus rather than in the rain.

14:45 – (Un)Surprisingly, it has stopped raining by the time we check through the group entrance to the Tower. Our guide leads us (avoiding assault-rifle-armed ceremonial guards along the way) straight to the line to see the crown jewels. This is a hugely popular attraction, and it’s single-file for about 40 minutes from the time get in line (ten minutes), to the time we walk through the exhibit (thirty minutes), to the time we exit on the other side of the building. Those jewels are pretty, no doubt about it.

15:30 – By the time we’re out of the Crown Jewel exhibit, there at forty minutes to go until the group meet-up, and I’m developing a classic Monday headache (triggers: short sleep, altered food scheduling) I poke around this and that part of the Tower, constantly being amazed at the accumulated weight of history, low doors and cheapening of tremendously important events into gift shop trinkets. A minuscule 75p green apple bought at the cafe is perfectly delicious, but does little to end the headache.

16:20 – By the time our group meets outside the Tower and heads for the dock where we’re supposed to board to get a tour of the Thames, my headache can’t be worse, and we end up waiting on a dock for 30 minutes. The rain is worsening, the dock is waving underneath our feet and I just want to have a nap. My attitude improves sharply once I realize that I’m complaining in view of the Tower Bridge: surely my life can’t be that bad! The boat finally shows up moments after.

16:50 – Headache driving my decisions, I end up sitting, uncharacteristically enough, in the middle section of the covered level of the boat, hunched into a seat away from everyone else. This, ironically enough, ends up a perfect decision as it’s raining harder and harder, and the sights to see are evenly distributed on both sides of the river. The windows are wide enough and my headache seems to crest somewhere at the end of the trip, although I don’t know that quite yet.

17:15 – Even including boarding and unboarding, it’s a very short trip: We’re shortly back on the bus for the last leg of the Total London Experience, driven to the London Eye. There is one unexpected opportunity, though: we’re given vouchers for the London Eye, which means that we’ve got two weeks to cash them in. Which means that the tour can end quickly which (looking at the falling rain outside) seems like a good idea. I take my leave, don’t forget to leave sa generous tip (for the driving, mostly: London traffic was a beast during the entire day) and walk to Waterloo, the nearest Underground station.

17:45 – The day isn’t over yet, though: I’m lucky to have a High-School friend stationed in London, and we have agreed to meet so that I can get a tour of his neighborhood. My headache definitely abating, I make a first phone call, then a second phone call as I learn that local phone calls on public phones in the UK are metered by the second. We agree to meet at Bond Street, which requires me to ride the Jubilee line. This line is, and feels far newer than the Central Line I’ve been taking so far. It also gets me to destination quickly, where I meet my friend.

18:00 – First order of business: Lunch! (Preceded by a quick trip through back-alleys and small street that I couldn’t track again if I tried.) Having requested Fish and Chips, my friend brings me to the Golden Hind(?), which indeed serves superior Fish & Chips: Far, *FAR* better than the one I got for myself at Brighton. Even the whirled Peas are tasty. Additionally, the secret may be a liberal use of vinegar, ketchup and tartar sauce.

19:15 – It’s neighborhood-walking time. From outrageous real-estate and rental prices (#6,000 per week), to an astonishing fromagerie, to a no-less-awe-inspiring Waitrose urban grocery store (I’m repeating myself, but the quality of their groceries would be reason enough to spend a week in London just eating new and better things) to a visit of his apartment, to a tour of a high-scale neighborhood (Seville Row, Picadilly Circus, Regent Regent Street, etc.), I get a fascinating look at street-level West End London from the perspective of someone who lives there; wow. A particular highlight is the visit to a six-level Waterstone bookstore on promises not to buy anything nor stay too long. (An intervention by my friend’s fiancé eventually saves us from perdition.) I repeat myself again, but UK bookstore are like a parallel universe, knowable but ultimately unknown and surprising. I see several books that I have been waiting for but aren’t yet published in the US. I spot omnibus editions unique to the UK market. I see different (or, in some cases, identical) covers. I even have a laugh when I see that Waterstone has one-upped WH Smith’s “Tragic Live Stories” section with “Painful Lives”. The bookstore is a pilgrimage of sorts, but by the end of the tour of my friend’s neighborhood, I know that I will be back in London for a full day on Saturday: There’s too much yet to see.

21:30 – I thank my friends and take my leave: After all, I still have some reading and writing to do. Fortunately, I’m at an underground station that connects directly to my hotel stop, and have no trouble getting back.

22:00 – A quick stop at Tesco for breakfast stuff (wow, a short line!), a quick check of personal and work email, and then up to the room for some writing of the day’s adventures.

00:30 – Wow, is it that late? Good-night.

Tuesday, March 30th – Fast Train to Paris

7:30 – I wake up shortly before my iPod does, and am showered, half-breakfasted (Tesco and Whitstone fruit salads! The Whitstone one isn’t as good; the pieces seem to have been dipped in lemon juice for preservation.) and ready to do laundry half an hour later.

8:00 – My plan is to do laundry at the launderette spotted earlier, and avoid laundry altogether during my Parisian interlude. Sadly, my ten-minute walk to the launderette is not enough given how I need soap, there is no automated soap dispenser at the launderette and the attendant won’t be in until 8:40 –to believe a geologically superimposed succession of posters addressing various pieces of launderette etiquette. I sit down with China Mieville’s The City and the City –and, magically, that novel starts to make sense.

8:40 – Yup; there’s the attendant, an older Hispanic lady who is happy to take my #10 and provide be with both a cup of soap (that she helpfully pour into the machine) and enough change to see me through the end of the washing/drying process. I start the washing machine and read some more Mieville. Twenty minutes (and more Mieville) later, I switch from washing to drying and read some more Mieville.

10:00 – Back at the hotel room, packing everything and having the second half of my breakfast (egg-and-sausage-and-bacon sandwich; presumably better once hot, but that would require a microwave.) A quick check of the lobby internet connection reveals that my code has expired; not being keen on incurring extra charges for the day, I let it go and check out.

10:30 – At the North Acton station for a last time. Tube to Holbrook and then St. Pancras. Despite the Moscow bombings and news of tightened security in the US, I see nothing different (or even worth being concerned about) in the Underground.

11:15 – At St. Pancras with no trouble in-between. Signs are clear and I’m swiftly led to the St Pancras train terminal, then the Eurostar boarding gate. My pre-printed boarding pass is good to go, and the basic-level security (you: through the metal detection gate. Everything else; through the X-Ray machine) goes well. The French custom officer doesn’t ask any question (in fact, scarcely notices me as he keeps discussing with his colleague) and I get a new stamp on my passport. There is a large laptop counter in the waiting are, with both electrical plugs and free wifi. I update this and settle for half an hour’s wait until we can board the train to Paris.

12:00 – We board! Alas, this is one of the times where my opinion of the people around me is closer to “are you all mentally retarded?!?”: People are lugging around barrel-sized luggage (you think I am joking, but I am not) and blocking aisles, jamming them in too-small overhead compartments, etc. Actually, we’re lucky if they only have one piece of luggage: the norm is closer to two, three, four, etc. My own side-bag fits comfortably on the top shelf and the backpack goes under my seat. But the fifteen other people in the compartment managed to transform it into a bazaar of sorts: One family of four, in particular, takes over about half the total storage space in the area. Despite everything, everyone manages to find a spot to seat before the train leaves.

12:30 – Whee! We go! We go fast! London soon goes away, and there’s only one other stop along the way. Otherwise, it’s zoom-zoom-zoom. We go so fast, and get over/underground so often on the British side, actually, that my ears are constantly popping from the pressure changes. The Chunnel crossing is basically, well, a long tunnel. Otherwise, the French countryside looks quite a bit different from the English one; the arrangement of properties look different, the roofs are different (overwhelmingly orange, I would say). Sitting in a “family area” with a couple and another guy traveling along, I feel cramped: The seats are facing each other, and clearly intended for people who don’t mind rubbing shoes once in a while. I finish the Mieville novel (which ends more predictably than you’d think), advance on the Futherfurd and begin a second Hamilton. For the third time in a week (fourth in a month, if anyone’s counting), I advance my clocks one hour in the future, given how Paris is in a different time zone. I am now fully six hours ahead of my usual time. It’s raining in Paris by the end of the trip, but the train is moving so fast that the windows are drying in moments after being struck by raindrops.

16:00 – Gare du Nord is a madhouse, and it feels a lot more chaotic than St Pancras. But then again, the board shows about ten times more destinations. Signs are relatively clear in their cluttered environment, and so I find my way to the metro entrance. There’s just one problem, I reflect while stuck in the middle of an interminable queue: I don’t know what to purchase: I don’t think they’ve got as good a system as the Oyster card here. My guidebook is of no help, but I spot a poster explaining ticket prices and conditions on the wall and give up my place in line to study it. Wise move: If half the language and sub-group eligibility specifications are incomprehensible, I manage to puzzle out that I want a “Paris Visite” ticket good for three days. Looking at the big, big station and the lengthy, lengthy line, I also figure out that there’s got to be another ticket office at the other end of the station, farther away from the arriving trains. That proves correct, and five minutes later I’m hopping on the first metro to station Strasbourg.

16:25 – I change metro lines and figure out from a sample of two that the Paris Metro seems older, dirtier (lot of graffiti between stations…) and less streamlined than the Underground. The seats are also far less comfortable. But, as I settle in to the looong trip to Exelmans, at least it works.

16:50 – Out and about on the streets of Paris, it’s raining quite harshly. I head in a direction, then turn one corner, momentarily doubt myself and get a map out to double-check my bearing. I am, after all, exactly where I should be, and see the hotels a few steps later. I check in, and they hand me a key that’s stuck to a hockey-puck-sized keychain bearing the name and room number of the hotel. Handy; if I lose it of get it stolen from my jacket, they can ALSO ransack come to the hotel and ransack my room. The way to my room is as such and -again- I am not making this up: Go past the reception, open the back door, walk up stairs in an inner courtyard, open up another door, climb the tiny curving stairs (unlit), then open the door at the top: voila, you’re home. Home, in this case, is a tiny room with a tiny single bed, no desk worth speaking about, and a slight smell of cigarette smoke. Plus a view on another inner courtyard, but most directly another set of windows. As the rain continues pouring down, I unpack a few things, find out that the free wifi works on a subscription basis (never mind; I’ll tackle that issue later), pronounce myself temporarily satisfied by the washroom (there is warm water) and decide that this will do. Moments later, I can’t help myself and get out to explore Paris.

17:15 – It turns out the rain has stopped and the sun seems to be coming out. My first order of business is the old “walk around the block” routine, which reveals enough grocery stores, restaurants and other essentials (including, oh-la-la, a “Laverie” that I will probably use two days from now), plus a few more things that I consider cool but not essential, such as a hardware store and a Persian rug shop. It helps that “my block”, I then see but later understand, borders major through-fares Exelmans and Avenue de Versailles. A quick ATM transaction gives me enough Euros to last me the rest of my 48 hours here. My neighborhood being satisfactory, I head to the other side of the Seine. My objective is modest: Walk to the Eiffel Tower, take a few pictures, come back. And see, along the way, if I can’t feed myself.

17:40 – My plan goes awry before I even get to the other side of the Seine: I see a poster announcing the “30th Salon du Livre de Paris” and dimly remember Jean-Louis Trudel mentioning something about it. How nice, I think: the biggest book fair in the francophonie, and it’s taking place now. Maybe I can take the metro to go to this “Place de Versailles” after I’m done with the Eiffel Tower. Then I see a sign telling me that Place de Versailles is straight ahead. No; but seriously; how’s my luck when it comes to books? I keep walking on Exelman (now something else entirely) and start doubting when I see a “Place de Versailles Hotel” and then Place de Versailles itself: It’s an enormous exhibition complex. Happily, there’s a book fair. Even more happily, they take my money and let me in.

18:15 – WOW. Now that’s a book fair. About ten times as big as Montreal, which used to be my yardstick for “can’t be bigger than this”. My plans for an orderly crawl of the place are quickly abandoned when I figure out the scale of the place, that I really can’t buy books, and that I can’t help buzzing from one awesome thing to another. The differences with all other book fairs is amazing. Great European publishers with small presences in Quebec have huge presences in Paris (Bragelonne) whereas the entire Quebec publishing industry is reduced to a (big, but relatively tiny) booth. Some editors like Hachette don’t even have books, but a meeting place. There are about a dozen stages for events. Dragault has an entire booth dedicated to hardcover comic booth: As a kid, I would have drooled other thins: As an adult, I manage to keep the drool inside my mouth, but said mouth is open. And so on. Amazing place. I leave without having purchased anything, but… WOW.

18:30 – Back on track for the Eiffel Tower. It’s cold, wet, windy but sunny. I make my way through tiny streets and minor commercial arteries, realigning my path via glimpses of the Tower. I stop at a Carrefour grocery shops to purchase my supper: Sandwich (Ham, Ementhal cheese, Salad), fruit salad, olive-and-sesame crisps and a bottle of fruit juice. I also stop at a Post office to get stamps; it takes a while to be served, but that’s because one employee is trying to serve about three people at once: I’m very impressed at his capacity for multitasking and parallel-queuing his clients as they have to fill time-consuming tasks. In the end, I purchase a few more stamps that I first wanted: He gives me block of Vancouver 2010 stamps (“How appropriate!”) and I will keep at least one for myself. I then resume my trip to the Eiffel tower. I momentarily lose it from view, then turn a corner and BANG-

19:30 – -there’s the tower in all its towering glory. Despite the cold wind and the post-showers mud, I’m far from being the only one taking pictures. In fact, trying to get from one side of the Champs de Mars to the other feels like an obstacle course as I try not to get in anyone’s filed of vision: The narrow lane I picked in-between the fenced-in lawns is an idea place for pictures. (My usually sorry attempt at a self-portrait actually comes out well enough.) I decide that there’s no better place to eat my lunch and sit down at a bench next to an older American couple. It’s cold, windy, wet and the sandwich isn’t particularly good (too much bread, not enough of everything else), but I feel fantastic. Near the end of my fruit salad, a couple stops in front of us and puts mittens on their toddlers. The woman from the couple besides me shouts “I’d take mittens as well!”, which leads to them saying that California is warmer than Paris, which leads to me saying that Canada is warmer than Paris at the moment. (True –check that weather: ) This leads to a conversation about, of all things, the Olympics and how much of a great show Canada put. You know that feeling you got during the Olympics where you were being force-fed information and wondered vaguely if there was going to be a test? Well: THERE IT WAS. This is the second conversation with Americans in as many days where the Olympics seems to be a big topic. Anyway; it was fun talking to them.

19:50 – Back on the road, I pass underneath the Eiffel Tower, then head to The Seine. My plans for a nighttime shot of the Tower don’t survive the weather (and time change: dusk, which came slightly after 18:00 my first night in Brighton, now settles after 20:00), and I settle for going back to my hotel via Avenue de Versailles. There is one thing I’m looking for, though, and it’s the mini Statue of Liberty given back to France by the USA after taking possession of the full-sized one. I dimply remember it as being on a bridge east of the Eiffel Tower, and end up finding it straight in my path after a dead-end and a risky walk on the small footpath in the middle of the Seine. Then it’s a return to the hotel. By the time I crash in my hotel room, my feet are thankful it’s over: After all, I just walked for most of the past four hours.

22:00 – Email (a lot of it, all things considered), this write-up and delicious snacks (salted almonds, mmm) takes up most of my hotel room time for the evening. I’m a bit disappointed that I don’t have the time to write up the Salon du Livre de Paris for Fractale Framboise. The Internet connection is flaky, but determination gets the job done. Otherwise; good night. Tomorrow: The Total Paris Experience!

Wednesday, March 33st – If this is Wednesday, this must be Paris

7:30 – My iPod wakes me. I’m not that surprised: After posting the previous day’s entry, I decided to write that Salon du Livre de Paris entry for Fractale Framboise, and finally went to be half past midnight. The constant time changes are taking a tool; fortunately, this is the last day of the trip where I have to be up this early: After that, my schedules begin at noon-ish. Shower, half-breakfast (almonds and crips and juice; I will get the rest closer to the tour office) and final prep take longer than I expected.

8:15 – In the metro system. The first leg of the trip to Franklin D. Roosevelt goes well, but the rest is a nightmare: following signs to the other line lands me without any choice on a line going the wrong way; when I try coming back at the next station, I have to exit the station before coming back. Once at the station suggested by Google Maps, I find once again (hmmm… lesson learned here) that I have no clue where the tour offices are, and the local map at the station exit is of no help. The information officer suggests going back one station. I do that and am even more lost. Asking a passerby is, as expected, no help. The clock ticks. Panicking, I finally do what I should have done earlier, and start looking at my Moon Metro guide. Turns out that the tour office seem to be at the next-next station. I rush and make it with about five minutes to spare.

9:15 – Our tour begins. The bus is barely a third full, and I get what I think is a good seat. At some point, I realize the idiocy of having reserved an English-speaking guided tour in Paris, especially when it turns out that our tour is bilingual English/Spanish. Our tour guide is sympathetic, frankly, not that good –A lot of hesitations, dead silence, and so on: But let’s give him a break: If I understand correctly, English is his third language. His jokes are slightly different in what I can understand of the Spanish part of the tour. We’re taken to the Opera House, the Obelisk, the Bastille, then Quartier Latin (where we have a two-minute stop at the Pantheon) and then on to cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.

10:45 – A lengthy explanation outside the cathedral (oh, hey, look at that: France’s Point Zéro des Routes de France) turns into torture when the wind picks up: putting on my cap (which brands me as a north-American as few other things can) and turning up my thin jacket hood, I bitterly regret not having my Kanuk winter coat. The rest of the smaller and smaller group seem to think so as well. Are we really going to board a boat later on? What was I thinking coming here in March?

11:00 – Things are, at least, not as cold inside the cathedral (“Do you feel God?” asks the guide rhetorically. “I feel warmth, but not necessarily God”, I blaspheme loud enough for two other guys to snicker) We’re shown the cathedral (nice), the stained glass (nicer) and then left to fend for ourselves for about 45 minutes (not so nice). After wandering around the cathedral, I end up sitting in the back row, opening up the laptop and writing the day’s adventures so far. Contrary to all expectations, there is wifi inside the cathedral… except that it’s very faint and useless. Still, technically, I did write blog material within Cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris. Before heading out, I put on a fourth layer: the sweater I had brought along “just in case”. It is now case.

12:00 – Outside the Cathedral, it doesn’t feel much warmer, but at least there’s a bit of sun. Well, sun and clouds. Ti give you an idea of the winds today, consider this: It’s the kind of day where you can not only see the clouds moving, but actually say “wow, they’re really moving quickly, aren’t they?” To pass the time while our group returns, the guide asks where we come from. There are a surprising number of Australians. The guide and I talk bilingualism (in French). There is a trio of women from Indiana; we shake hands given how, by the global standards set by the group, we’re practically next-door neighbo(u)rs. Once the entire group regroups, we make our way to a ferry that will take us back to the Louvre. The ferry is late. I get information from the guide about the newer “Defense” area, where new towers are going up. (I don’t mind a bit of history, but I’m overdosing at the moment, and still haven’t seen much of modern Paris.) We go inside the booth when it starts raining. HARD.

12:25 – All aboard! It’s raining, but the boat is covered. The trip has three segments, and I spend the first one inside, standing up (no seats left). The rain stops in time for the second segment, so I pass some time outside. Finally, for the third, I go back to the relative warmth of the cabin: With the glass ceiling and the sun suddenly peeking out (it’s THAT KIND of day), it starts feeling a bit warm. But then we’re back at the Louvre, braving the unfrickinbelievablewind to get a quick orientation for future reference.

13:05 – Well, the tour is over and the lunch break begins: We’ve got about an hour to eat and be back for the afternoon activities. Wandering aimlessly in search of a quick sandwich, I spot a few nice and cheap postcards; I stock up. Then I continue wandering; go past by a suspiciously popular McDonalds and end up on the avenue leading back to the Operas House. On a whim, I keep going. There’s a place selling sandwiches: I stop, wait a moment as the tough-as-nail woman manning the stand argues in stereotypical Parisian fashion with an indecisive client. Then the shopkeeper turns to me and ask what I want; I immediately ask for the Ham Sandwich. The shopkeeper turns to the indecisive client and says “now that’s the kind of client I like.” I apologize to the other woman, begging forgiveness for being Canadian and pay up. At the Opera House, I find a nice deserted spot on the stairs, exposed to the sun and shielded from the wind. Pigeons mill around, making it hard to find a spot to sit, but I do. After a while, it starts to feel warm, and the busy intersection provides its own entertainment when it’s not an overly aggressive pigeon intimidating his fellow pigeons. The sandwich is, once again, all baguette and little filling, but it feels great to be eating here. I make my way back to the Tour office by a maze of little streets, and make a few discoveries: A walk-in glassed office building, a Column I hadn’t had the change to photograph properly during the morning; and a few other small scenes of Parisian lunchtime life. I try addressing postcards at the Tour office, but stop after finding out that I’m rushing and making a mess of even simple sentences.

14:00 – For a tour supposed to start at 14:15, we’re left outside waiting to enter the bus until 14:35. Grrr: cold, wet, etc. To my good surprise, three of the tour-goers are familiar: It’s the New Jersey trio that sat next to me on the London tour! Otherwise, there are a few other veterans from the morning’s tour. Once again, English and Spanish predominate: There is a French couple on board, but the tour guide (not the same, not as sympathetic) keeps addressing me in English. This is an automated-narration tour, with headphones to plug in the console in front of us and various channels for different languages.

14:40 – The tour begins! It start raining HARD again right before the bus leaves the station. This is the first of three sub-tours for the afternoon: a hour-long bus trip taking us past various monuments. Place de la Concorde, Obélisque, Champs Elysés, Arc de Triomphe and the view of the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero (very nice! Makes the whole trip worthwhile!) are basically what we have time to cover in 40 minutes while weaving through traffic. The narration is professional; this is more what I’m expecting from a guided tour. I certainly puts the city in perspective. Too bad it doesn’t last longer…

15:20 – We are now standing at the docks near the Tour Eiffel, in line for the second section of the afternoon tour: Another rive cruise! Yaaaay. Oh well; at least now we are sitting in a large boat, with an astonishingly multilingual cruise director introducing pre-canned periodic narration. This view of Paris from the Seine is actually not bad, even if the narration is somewhat too sparse for my taste. (Anecdote here about “wishing bridge” and 1992-to-2010. Too long to write out here now.) The views of the river, the other boats on the river (a lot to see there; for one thing, an astonishing number of them carry a car on their back cabin) and the buildings next to the river are surprisingly good. The glass canopy makes it all feel warm, despite another five-minute spat of heavy rain and wind midway through. (The wind is so powerful that it opens the swinging glass door behind me.)

16:50 – After the end of the boat tour and a hurried “follow-the-guide-with-the-yellow-sign” walk from the docks to the Tour Eiffel (the New Jerseyers and I agree that the London sunshine umbrella had more personality, plus the thrill of the “run to follow or you will never see her again” aspect), we are now waiting in line to take an elevator up to the second floor. It’s cold and windy. Let me rephase that: GAAAH IT’S COLD AND WINDY. We can take the cold. We can probably take the wet and the cold. But standing in line, the wind is the killer. I look like an idiot with my thing wind-breaking hood over my cap, but I don’t care since it actually BREAKS THE WIND. Still, it is bitterly windy. Sunny, though. And I try to live with the knowledge that I’m about to experience much more wind up the tower itself.

17:20 – We are now in the elevator going up. The delay has led me to yet another credibility attack on the recent FROM PARIS WITH LOVE movie, which has an interlude with the protagonists snorting cocaine and going up the Eiffel tower only to come down and be on their merry way. If I’ve got to wait 25 minutes on a rainy windy cold March day NO WAY IN HECK THEY CAN DO THAT ON A WHIM.

17:25 – Second floor of the Eiffel Tower. I’ve been here before, but still: Wow! Not only do we get a good view of the city from all angles, but I can actually see a rainstorm passing through Northern Paris. Amazingly enough, a rainbow follows. While I’m walking around, sudden gusts make me fear for my cap. While walking on the east side, there is a sudden gust so strong and cold that it momentarily makes me stop and thing (among other frozen things) DOESN’T THIS MAKE YOU FEEL ALIVE??? By 17:35, though, I’m back in the indoor section. By 17:40, I’m ready to go back down: I decide to do something stupid and walk the stairs down. It’s not all that stupid, though, and goes by quickly including a tour of the First floor. By the time I’m down to the plancher des vaches, it’s 17:50 and I’m ready to hop on the bus back to the Tour offices. While walking through a less-frequented backstage area, I find a crushed metal tower replica of the kind sold by the ubiquitous vendors hustling under the tower; I don’t usually go for souvenirs, but this seems too oddball to pass up.

18:20 – This fourth and entirely optional section of the tour is more of an appendix through known terrain, but we still get a few good looks at some of the left-bank buildings. Interestingly enough, we are not begged for gratuities on this tour. Given the patchwork of tours sub-contracted, I can almost understand why.

18:30 – On the ground in Paris. It’s getting late, and I’m starved –not for food, but for modernity. I decide to do something insane and walk from the Louvre Pyramid to the Grande Arche at La Défense. After all, I have been fascinated by La Grande Arche for years, it’s a straight path from the Louvre to there, there’s a Metro ride back, and it’s only cough-cough-kilometers away. (OK: 8.4 kilometers) So I go and go behind the main Louvre Pyramid… and GO! Pyramid (18:38); Jardin des Tuileries (18.44); Obelisque/Place de la Concorde (18:54), Champs Élysés (19:05). The character of the street changes; becomes more comfortably commercial, with a blend up upscale and hip blands. I briefly stop by FNAC (19:11) and am impressed by the store. When I come out, it’s raining: I try to delay the inevitable by ducking through three malls that span the space between Champs Elysés and another street and, guess what, it works: the rain clears up for the rest of the day as I exit the third mall. Past the Arc de Triomphe (19:30), the character of the street changes again, gradually becomes working-level restaurants, stores, etc. By the time I pass the Palais des Congrès and Porte Mailliot (19:50), it’s obvious that everything is closed for the day. But then! I go past the Seine and reach Defense.

20:15 – Now this is a Paris I like. Never mind the hundreds of years of accumulated history: I’m interested in what Paris is doing now and will do in the future, so the vista in front of me is perfect. This is the New, big, corporate/governmental Paris, and it’s doing very very well with all of its new glass-plated office buildings, many of them showing unusual audaciousness in corporate-chic architecture. Best of all, the Defense area is completely walkable: The roads are underneath, and there is an immense shopping center (closed by this time of the day) right under the surface of the Grande Arche. I take a good number of pictures even though the dusk is making it harder and harder to capture what’s worth seeing about the place. I end up at the Grande Arche at about 20:40: It’s touch to keep going in a straight line when it’s a pedestrian mall, and when there are so many distractions (including a music festival at the western base of the Grande Arche.) I start by circling the Grande Arche by the North, then decide to come back through the cube, climbing up and then down the stairs. But something stops me on the top of the descending stirs and I sit down to see much of La Defense before me, the Arc de Triomphe lit in the distance. It’s a powerful feeling of having seen so much and so little, that there are plenty of things left to see in Paris. Given that I am at the end of my vacation tether, that everything from now on will be a retreat to more familiar grounds, I take a moment to appreciate this… and to make notes for the next visit.

20:45 – Back to the hotel via the Metro. My plans to purchase groceries at La Defense are dashed by a lengthy, lengthy line. A busking trumpeter invades our metro car for three stops, blasting away at ear-shattering levels and then asking for money. (no; and this makes me appreciate OCTranspo a bit more) I’m very lucky that the hotel’s neighborhood grocery store is still open even 20 minutes past announced closure time: I quickly pick a salmon sandwich, goat-cheese wrap and fruit juice.

22:10 – At the hotel for email, food (sandwich: usual complaint. Wrap; hovered near my quota of weirdness. Juice; refreshing!), write-up. All of this takes a lot longer than I thought, but at least there’s no blogging today, and I can sleep in tomorrow. Which is good, because I’m going back to London!

Thursday, March 30 – From Paris to London, frantically.

8:00 – My iPod reminds me to wake up, and I obey slowly. At this point, I still think I have time, so I’m slow in showering, checking wifi access (not working) and assembling my laundry.

8:45 – The nearby laverie is probably my favorite laundry place on my European trip so far: Everything is fully automated and clean. Unfortunately, I don’t know how the system works and have to have it explained to me. While the clerk asks whether I want it at “40 or 60”, I think she refers to temperature and answer 60. Oops; that means time, and that my laundry will be ready at 9:55. I settle down to write postcards, but then the clerk starts vacuuming and I decide to go get breakfast.

9:00 – Another quick trip through the neighborhood shows me a variety of small stores (some of whom aren’t yet open), and an open-air market with just about every kind of fresh food from fruits to fish (and meat, and bread, and vegetables, and eggs, and…) I grab a croissant from a boulangerie and return to my hotel: It was suddenly dawned on me that by dawdling and selecting twenty more washing minutes (which can’t be canceled), I’m suddenly far too close on time to Eurostar departure to London. I pack up my stuff, eat my croissant (it’s really, really good despite having it been allowed to cool) check out, go back to the Laundry and finish my postcards. A double-check of my schedule reveals a hideous error: Only 73 minutes scheduled from hotel check-out (10:00) to train departure (11:13). In-between, I have to take two metro lines to cross downtown Paris, go through security, board the train and, oh, try to find a mailbox. Alarms start flashing red in my head. What was I thinking? The laundry finishes at 8:53 and I slam it into the dryer for one eight-minute cycle. It gets worse as I can’t find my metro ticket. When could it be? It’s not in my bags… where did I put it last? Yesterday, in my pants… Realization DINGS at the same time the dryer ends its run. I find the destroyed remnants of the ticket in my pants, the magnetic strip the only evidence that it was my three-day ticket. Ooh, this is not going well.

10:00 – Going from the laverie to the metro station, making the train looks like a losing crusade. I’ve got to go past twenty-two stations in order to get to the gigantic Gare du Nord. Add security and boarding, and it just doesn’t look possible. I frantically have to learn how a metro ticket machine works (it uses a roll-bar) and in doing so, lose a few precious seconds meaning that I miss a train that leaves just as I reach the last steps. I resolve to not look at the clock, but it’s hard to do so why reading on my iPod. Someone has left orange peels on two seats: I scoop them over to only one seat and sit on the other. Another @#$%^&* busker (this time, a guitarist) terrorizes the car. I switch lines: I seem to be slightly in advance, but it still looks hopeless to me; the kind of hopeless that missed the train by “just this much”. At the Gare du Nord, I somehow rush and find the Eurostar on my first attempt, see a yellow mailbox in my peripheral vision and slam the postcards in the International slot and put my ticket against the self-serve machine. It lets me in, but then I hit customs. French customs are happy to see me go away, but British customs need a form filled. When I come back with my scrawler form, my barely-concealed panic must be showing, because the guard grills me a bit more intensively and initially understand that “visiting Paris” means “visiting parents” Done with customs, I turn the corner and see two things: a lengthy line at the metal detection scanner… and a clock that shows that it’s five minutes to 11:00. I’m still not too sure how that happened (micro-wormholes in the subway?) but I’m as grateful as the other guy in front of me who is reassured by other travelers that there is nothing to worry about in boarding the 11:13 train. Indeed, I have to wait in line to board the train, and am in my seat a good ten minutes before departure. Still, this is cutting it FAR TOO CLOSE.

11:13 – After that rush, the train ride is a dull slog. My seatmate is an unfriendly Frenchwoman who sneezes and coughs. The car isn’t full, but there are still a lot of luggage everywhere. I finish the Hamilton novel, begin an Ian Banks one and continue Rutherfurd’s London. I write up the day’s adventures so far. At the Chunnel, I walk through the train to get lunch in the service car: BLT Sandwich, Regular Kettle chips, can of Orangina. Coming back to my seat, I spot an Independent newspaper and read it while eating. The Page 3 item is about a spectacular new tower-exhibit to be built in time for the London 2012 Olympics: A preview of my next trip? My seatmate sleeps most of the way and wakes up moments before the train arrives.

12:45 – At the Underground station. The way to the Airport is looong, but dull. I learn from Rutherfurd’s London that “Petty France” street is a derivation from “petite France” (ie; a community of French immigrants).

13:50 – Not only back at Heathrow, but back at the Grand Bus Central station where I started my trip to Brighton. The loop is looped. I grab the first bus headed outside the airport: it’s within the free travel zone given how it’s impossible to walk out of the airport on foot.

14:15 – At the hotel. Check-in American-class, and so is the room: After the succession of tiny rooms, this one (complete with King-sized bed, American power outlet and lavish-feeling bathroom) feels palatial. The hotel has very expensive wired Internet access (#15/day), but I’m not going to be happy with tenuous free wifi any more: I gladly pay. After a bit of doing-nothing, I pack essentials in my backpack and set out for London once more despite the interminable ride. What, you thought I would just stay here and relax for the rest of the day? You should know better by now.

15:00 – The first part of the trip is new: Hop on the bus, let it get to Heathrow’s Central Bus Terminal, looping around the airport a few times for good measure. Then it’s back to the mundane, as the Piccadilly Line underground takes about an hour to get to downtown. (I read a chunk of Rutherfurd’s London) Then it’s an unexpected thrill, as the Jubilee Line is held up due to an unspecified problem two stations ahead.

16:39 – After five minutes of not moving, I decide that I could be perfectly happy getting out at Westminster rather than Waterloo; so I get out of the Underground (it’s raining), snap a few pictures (including a hilarious one of Big Ben Tower and me looking dismayed at the fact that IT’S RAINING AGAIN IN LONDON) and cross the river.

16:26 – My destination for the afternoon is The London Eye: I still have an unclaimed ticket from the guided tour, and even if I’m back downtown on Saturday, I may not want to brave the Easter weekend rush. It takes a while to get the ticket validated, and then we get to see the “London Eye 4D experience”, which is basically a 3D movie (we wear glasses) with added smoke, water (sprinkled at us), bubbles (blown around us) and a few floor light highlights. Sounds corny, I know, but it’s not that bad, especially when the camera moves in 3D and you can almost feel the acceleration. It’s very reminiscent of amusement-park attractions. Then we’re told to board the Eye!

17:21 – Two thing happen at once at the moment we exit the Eye ticket offices to board the ride. First, it rains. I mean it REALLY REALLY RAINS. Sheets of rain, thunder, lighting –everything! At the same time, a school group mobs the entrance of the queue leading up to the eye, rushing to get to shelter and completely overwhelming the poor people trying to scan every ticket out in the rain. Their scanner stops working, so they shout at everyone to step back, grab tickets rather than scan them, and try to rule the mob. I step back and try to let the situation sorts itself out, which is great if you’re not in a hurry, but a pain when it’s POURING RAIN. My faith in the “wait five minutes and it will be over” rule of European weather during this trip is sorely tested. Eventually, my ticket is taken, I get out of the rain and into the shelter, and we board.

17:30 – I’m not terribly impressed by the Eye’s ability to deal with a schoolkid mob, but the rest of it is very polished: The Eye’s capsules are designed for stop-less boarding (which can be smoothly, almost imperceptibly stopped to allow for disabled boarding) and the generously-glassed cabins allow for very good photo opportunities. The ascent is made in rain, to the point where I fear that with the water droplets on the outside of the capsule (which take over the camera’s auto-focus), and the thickening humidity dew on the inside of the capsule thanks to the combined breathing of twenty-some people, there won’t be any good opportunities for pictures. But suddenly, mid-way through our turn, it’s sunny again: We reach the top as the sun breaks out over London, and we can see the storm moving past us to go rain some more on the City. (Alas, no rainbow as at the Eiffel Tower) Second, the lower curving parts of the capsule remain noticeably less affected by the water droplets, a trick that a number of us shutterbugs learn to exploit. I get some fantastic pictures, including a school of bird momentarily perched on one of the cables supporting the Eye. All and all, for such a hyped and obvious attraction, the London Eye gets my mark of approval. (But don’t bet on rainstorms clearing off for you too.)

18:00 – The London Eye being done, that leaves me on the South Bank with little else to do. I decide to go take a walk alongside the river and see what I can find, possibly to go take a look at the Tate Modern art museum. There are a few surprises along the way (a bookstore, a beach of fine sand, packed 5-to-7s, memorial timber from British Columbia, a sordid-looking skate park, a reminder that there’s only three days left before Chocolate Eggs. My still-vacillating decision to go to the Tate modern or not is facilitated by the fact that it’s closed. I hop on the Millennium Bridge and walk over St. Paul’s Cathedral, dodging an annoying group of schoolkids along the way. (Annoying partly in how they’re in the way, but also because thanks to their slumbering walk, you could hear them scraping away at the peculiar surface of the Millennium Bridge like so unnatural locust plague…)

18:45 – I find an M&S Simply Food upper-scale instant-grocery store (the kind that sells meals to hurried commuters, not stock-up groceries) and ransack what doesn’t require a microwave: an exotic mini-wrap selection (prawn, chili, mango, etc), an olive/feta salad, a fruit salad and some tropical fruit juice. It looks so good that I can’t wait to get back to the hotel to eat, but the rest of the grocery store looks terrific as well. After that, I stop at an ATM (I have a feeling I will be spending money at the Eastercon dealer’s room) and decide to call it a day: It’s an hour earlier than my camera clock had suggested so far (I hadn’t adjusted it back from Paris Time), but shops are closing down in the City, sunlight is disappearing, I’ve got 90 minutes to go before I’m back at the hotel and I want to sneak a look at the airport terminal.

20:15 – Airport terminal? Well, yes. This may sound unexplainable at first, but I want to be familiar with the path I will take, perhaps hurriedly, on Monday. I also want to take a look at their shops in case I need something fast over the next four days (so I spot a Post Office and a Luggage shop, just in case) and see if I can’t learn anything new (I do: There’s a Krispy Kreme shop for any sudden Easter-day donut cravings.) This being done, I hop on a bus back to the hotel.

21:00 – …and so we are, back at the hotel room that will host me for the next four days. Big day today, but now I have to get ready for a far more sedate rhythm, at least for tomorrow. But then again, I’ll be moderating two panels…

23:00 – Lights out. Wow! It’s the first time in what feels like forever that I’m going to bed before midnight!

8:15 – Well, what’s the use of an uncluttered schedule if you can’t use it to luxuriate a bit? Even without an alarm clock, I’m up after spending a few minutes lunging in bed. The shower is, for once during this trip, without problem. I take my time putting things together, so much so that my plan to go check out High Street for a grocery store is put on hold.

9:45 – At the Edwardian Radisson for the convention. For the look of the attendees, I know I’m at the right place: there are the usual beard-and-glasses middle-class intellectual people I know, the subtly-subversive matronly types, the gotho-punkish girls… I’m within a known community, and it feels homey. Registration goes quickly. Climbing up the elaborately-decorated stairs (all in Edwardian style, at least from the first to the third floor) I greet Murray Moore and Claude Lalumière, and end up chatting with Claude. Studying the attendee bag, I discover that we have been given an Eastercon mug, two paperback novels (one of which I’ve read, so it goes to Claude) and -oh, ho-ho- a Cadbury chocolate egg. It taunts me, it truly does.Claude and I briefly go our separate ways to check out the rest of the convention (I explore the truly bizarre layout of the hotel) but eventually end up talking movies (KICK-ASS, in particular: We’ve seen the same film, but he liked it a lot more tan I did). Cheryl Morgan stops to say hi.

11:00 – There’s nothing truly compelling on the schedule (Eastercon runs at half-capacity on Fridays) and I still have to go check out the neighborhood. So I go take a walk North up nearby High Street, and see both the restaurants and grocery store I had spotted on Google Street view. I end up buying three days’ worth of groceries at the satisfyingly-stocked Coop Food Store (including breakfast and diner for the day), dodging a prodigious number of small kids in such a small store. On my way back, someone stops their car to ask me for directions; he is sorely disappointed at my ignorance, but figures out from my accent (“High street?” “No, Hayes street”) that I’m unlikely to be of any help. I end the hour in my hotel room, eating breakfast/lunch (a rather good “all day breakfast” sausage+bacon+eggs sandwich, plus chips).

12:00 – I slip into the traditional “How do you store/index your book collection” panel and actually find geekier book collectors than me: I am particularly struck (in the “I want to be those people when I grow up” sense) by the couple that designed their new home to accommodate books. Among other hints: Don’t build doors flush to the walls: Leave 9 inches clearance so you can fit a bookcase behind the open door. Also; design central heating so that it doesn’t require wall elements) Otherwise, it’s the usual “I use this program to index” (All people on the panel, plus quite a few in the audience, have attempted to code their own application at some point; at least two of them have abandoned the effort and now use LibraryThing. Great panel, but I have the bad luck to be seating next to the crying baby and so miss about a quarter of it.

13:00 – Presentation: “Iain Banks Before the Wasp Factory”, a talk about the novels that Bank wrote before his first published novel. This is pretty interesting stuff, in part because Banks wrote quite a few of those early novels, but also because in some cases they were reworked into latter works. The presenter isn’t the most flamboyant (and his speaking… style… often was… hesitant…) but the presentation is intriguing enough that I would be more than OK hearing another talk like that about other authors.

14:00 – The dealer’s room open! It’s crowded, busy, interesting and overstuffed, but my good intentions to remain reasonable go flying off the window as soon as I see great books to buy. I get out of there with four books: two recent British publications that I would have purchased at Readercon sooner or later; one translated Russian novel since adapted as a video game, and one old Harlan Ellison book I had been looking for for ages. I also get to speak to the very sympathetic owner of Beccon Books, which is great since we’ve been emailing back and forth irregularly even since I reviewed some of their SF criticism books.

15:00 – “Writing Steampunk”: Those looking for specific tips on writing steampunk (arguably me, given the novel project I’m thinking about) instead had to be happy with a general exploration of steampunk, why it’s popular and what it’s got in it. Most of the discussion remains a bit hesitant about the subject (and sees it from a purely SF perspective, rather than the hybrid literary/fashion movement it seems to have become), which is just too bad… but not that bad.

16:00 – If I go to “Is the New Trek a Trekkie’s Trek”, it’s not as much to see what other trekkies think about the latest movie (verdict: they like it even though they can argue about its problems for nearly an hour) than to see the room where I’m about to moderate two panels. It’s a medium-sized room, which suggests a fairly small room.

16:45 – I slip out of the good-natured Trek panel to get to the Green room, where I meet the three other participants to the “How to Moderate a Panel” panel I’m moderating. I get a quick sense of where everyone is coming from, and we go!

17:00 – Moderating a panel on how to moderate a panel is a hopeless task: No matter how well you do it, you’re going to be compared to the platonic ideal of moderation the panel discusses. Nonetheless, it goes OK and everyone’s honor is safe.

18:00 – I meet Peter Halasz besides the dealer’s room, and we proceed to have a chat that largely talks about, ironically enough, Canadian fandom.

18:45 – Back to the Green Room to meet my fellow participants to the “Gender is Space Opera” panel. Looks like a solid group (I’m the token male participant), but to my dismay I still don’t have much of a solid plan for the panel. I have, I should say, no particular expertise nor interest on this topic: It’s a strict “Moderation for hire” job entrusted to me by the programming director who was looking for “someone impartial to moderate what could be a contentious panel”. Whee; fortunately, I have a ticket out of the country if things go wrong.

19:00 – As we work through our prepared material, the panel audience gradually get bigger until it’s standing room only. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with such a large group before, and pretty soon, I’m the traffic cop telling people “you get to ask a question, then you, you and you” It’s a fast discussion, with plenty of interesting material, and the audience gets to do a whole lot of talking. Some self-deprecation goes a long way in patching my worst mistakes, although I do mistake a “ma’am” for a “sir” at some point (I apologize after the panel and we have a laugh about it.) It is, in many ways, the kind of moderation job I dreaded: large audience, many questions, tough subject. But the audience is wonderful, things keep rolling and there is little specific disagreement in the crowd about the desirability of good (or diverse) gender representation in space opera. I get a rewarding number of comments about my moderation at the end of the panel, but only I know how lucky I was to be gifted with such great panelists/audience.

20:00 – After talking awards with a small group of people after the panel, I spend a few moments at the end of the opening ceremonies, then get to talk with the Moores about our experiences during the past week.

21:15 – Walking back to the hotel, I’m faced with two choices: Either go back to the hotel, write up the day’s events, have dinner and relax, or go walk east of the hotel on Bath Road to see if I can’t find inner peace, spiritual contentment, a cure to my wanderlust and a launderette. I decide to stop by the hotel room, unload my books and at least a bit of dinner. Shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes. And it doesn’t: The arrabbiata chicken wraps are good, and so is the fruit salad. A bit of nibbling on the “Gruyere cheese and poppy seed twists”, mixed salted nuts and cheese breadsticks is also highly satisfying. So as the clock nears the half-hour, I leave my bag in the room and go outside, where I am greeted with…

21:30 – …POURING RAIN. The kind that would have meant a very unhappy me if I had gone into the night fifteen minutes earlier. I love it when my decisions have happy unintended consequences. In any case, I return to the hotel room, write up the day’s events and finish Rutherfurd’s London (very impressive). Lights out slightly after 23:30… until tomorrow’s day trip to London.

Saturday, April 2 – Once more through London!

8:00 – How big is my king-size bed? Apparently, big enough that I wake up at around 7:45 while lying sideways across the bed. How did that happen? I reflect on that questions for a good 15-30 minutes before feeling ready to face the day. Not that the rest of the morning routine is any faster: After my frantic exit from Paris, I am appreciating unhurried schedules. Breakfast is made of grocery store plunder: Banana, cheese bread, juice. I check email; nothing. A few occasional rumbles remind me of how extraordinary good the hotel’s soundproofing actually is.

9:15 – Rather than go back (again) to Heathrow to get on the Underground system, I decide to march in a hitherto-unexplored direction from my hotel: East! Alas, it turns out to be as plain and featureless as my Google overview had predicted: It’s either farmland, industrial development, oddities (“Airport Bowl” –with McDonalds!) The only excitement comes when a plane roars overhead, or when I spot a SUBWAY sign that ends up meaning “underground walking path” rather than “hey, you’re at the station!” One of my objectives was to find a launderette; sadly, the closest one (and even then, it’s a dry cleaner with “launderette services”, whatever that means is twenty minutes away. Not an option, which means that “Plan underwear” is in effect until my return home: I’ll be wearing shirt and pants a second time (OH NO!!!) with clean underwear. Most people actually do this, I understand.

10:00 – I have made it to Hatton Cross, the Underground station closest to Heathrow. There’s a small city centre around it, but since it’s 45 minutes away from the hotel by walking (and about 30 minutes by bus and train), that won’t be very useful. As I wait for the train, I have two concerns in mind for the day: First, the weather: It has rained a bit on my way here, and London hasn’t been very good so far at being not-wet. Second; my feet: I have one annoying blister, and I’m about to criss-cross the entire city on foot for most of a day. I hope everything holds together. Abroad the train on the way to London, I read the Extraordinary Engines steampunk anthology (a grab-bag) and try to figure out how I’ll make it to the Tate Modern given that a good chunk of the Underground (including all of the Jubilee line) is out-of-service for repairs during the weekend.

10:55 – After transfering at Green Park to Victoria, my hopes to tranfer again to either the Circle of District line are dashed by a massive crowd of people standing on the platform. Both lines are running very slowly due to repairs elsewhere (a passing freight train carrying supplies underscores that for us.) and the crowd is growing, growing, growing… There’s a cute black girl wearing rabbit ears and a puffy tail on the other side of the platform; clearly, it’s Easter Saturday. By the time the train stops on the other side and departs, leaving about half the people stranded to wait for the next train, I can take a hint and exit the Victoria Station.

11:05 – This decision to walk wasn’t such a bad one: I get to discover Victoria Street, and some of the sights along this busy office street. There aren’t that many people along the way, but that soon changes once the spires of Westminster Abbey approach. Clearly, the tourists are out in force (a better question would probably be “where aren’t they out in force?”) and it’s difficult to move around. Since I’ve walked from Big Ben to Tate Modern via the South Riverbank two days ago, I decide to keep walking along the North Bank, starting with Whitehall, then going on to The Strand at Trafalgar Square.

11:45 – As the Strand transforms into Fleet Street, it’s clear that it’s the weekend: several stores are closed, and there aren’t that many people around. At some point, I stop by a Rymans to buy postcards. Trying to find stamps won’t be easy if the Post Offices are closed… For once, I decide to walk the Millennium Bridge from North to South, going into Tate modern.

12:15 – My visit through the Tate Modern is criminally fast and unattentive, but it’s as crowded as the streets are empty, and I’m the kind of visitor that races through exhibits anyway. Still, there are a number of impressive intallations, from the massive “What it is” in the Turbine Gallery (essentially: a completely blackened and soundproofed alcove that dares you to go as deeply as you dare into the darkness. Quite a feeling, especially coming out.), to other unusual displays. I get to see my first real Roy Litchenstein. One of the temporary exhibitions, “All Ghost No Shell” is inspiured by anime classic “Ghost in the Shell”. Admittance is free, but I drop #5 in the box with satisfaction: It’s a lively museum, and a very accessible one.

12:45 – I follow the South Riverside until London Bridge, then cross the river again to walk The City. I not-so-coincidentally find myself back at St.Paul to take advantage of the M&S Simply Food grocery store, when I buy my lunch.

13:15 – Sitting in the middle of the steps of St.Paul’s Cathedral (which, having survived The Blitz, won’t be too bothered by my presence), I munch on my lunch. The Beef Enchilada would have been better reheated, but the roll trio sampler is delicious: Salmon, salad, fancy cheese, wow! Teh fruit salad has a lot of mangoes, but the apple/raspberry juice is great. There’s alimit to how much time I can spend thinking about the great to-go-food available in groceries here, so I try to figure out if I will be seen is more pictures than I have taken during my trip.

13:35 – On the roads again, I walk north and slowly leave The City. More out of curiosity than any actual need, I try one of the pay toilets available on the street: Well, that’s something I won’t need to repeat. On High Holborn, I starts trying to get stamps, and it seems impossible. Two of my conversations in stationery/card stores go like this: “Do you sell stamps?” “Yes!” “International?” “No, we can’t. You have to go to the Post Office, but it’s closed on Saturday…” One clerk thinks that some Post Office may have automated stamp dispensers… but the massive Post Office a block later doesn’t. Uh-oh…

14:15 – As more or less planned, I briefly find myself in SoHo, going hrough tiny and not-so-tiny streets in-between unique and slightly disreputable stores. It’s also an area rich in “name musicals” theaters, including Priscilla Queen of the Desert –which features a massive rhinestore high-heel shoe on top of the marquee. From SoHo, it’s easy to slip into Chinatown (I’ve got a photo of the Gates with, in the foreground, the most adorable mini-compact car with a leopard-fur paint job.) and then find oneself at Picadilly Circus. There are *a lot* of people at Picadilla Circus. The cleark at the tourist information desk isn’t very helpful regarding stamps.

14:30 – Going down Regesnt Street in a last-ditch attempt to find out if Rymans stationary has an automated stamps dispenser, I stop a tourist information center. Those places usually charge for everything, but they just may be happy to sell me stamps. And indeed they do, at a 12% markup. Still, those are stamps, and there’s a chair I can sit on to write my postcards. Twenty minutes later (and the paper of those postcards is fantastic to write on), ta-da! Postcards stamped, written and addressed. Pretty much everyone on my list gets at least one. The only thing I haven’t done is to mail them… I’ll do that at a good appropriate spot.

15:00 – The theater hosting The Phantom of the Opera (the original!) greets me as I leave Pall Mall to get to the Covent Garden neighborhood. But first, I have to get through the Trafalgar Square area. (tourists! thousands of them! I am even asked for directions!) Covent Glen is bustling with shoppers; I use the area as a guide to get to Shaftesbury Avenue, where I’m making a Pilgrimage to…

15:20 – Forbidden Planet! I’m sure that there are several stores vying for the honor of being called “Geek Heaven”, but Forbidden Planet had a lead over most of them. It’s got everything from expensive figurines (including a hilarious “clearance” section that drives home the fleeting nature of geek interests) to a basement full of SF&F books and comic books. It’s very impressive, exquisitely well-run, but I only get one book: Queen Victoria, Demon Hunter. Chalk it us to option paralysis, maybe, or to a number of books failing my elementary “Can I get this at home?” test. I wouldn’t want to get too complimentary regarding Forbidden Planet (it is a chain, and some elements of the geek culture feel deeply stupid to me), but it’s quite a store, and I’m happy to have been there.

15:45 – As I walk north from Covent Garden, more shows! We Will Rock You at Tottenham/Oxford. This is the point in this narrative of the day when I realize that maps of London (especially the Covent Garden/West End/Soho one in my guidebook) are, contrarily to maps of most other cities, misleading in that they suggest GREATER distances than the ones actually walked. So it is that while trying to reach Oxford Street to take advantage of the “shopping district” suggested by the guidebook (and drop by the HMV spotted earlier), I completely overshoot and end up at Euston. My fet are seriously starting to hurt by this point of the day, but no worries! I can think of at least two good things to see in the area. So that’s how I end up passing in Front of Madame Tussauds (where I mail those postcards, although they won’t be picked up until Tuesday, and are unlikely to reach Canada until a week after I’m back home) and walk into The Sherlock Holmes Museum.

16:30 – Clues abound that the latest Sherlock Holmes movie hasn’t yet been accepted in the Holmes canon: There are to traces of it inside, although the array of wonderful shlocky sherlockiana is amusing in its own right. I fulfill a half-decade-long promise and leave, marginally happier than I usually am after leaving a gift shop. Then it’s south baker Street until it becomes Orchard and leads me straight to Grosvernor Square, which front both the US Embassy and the Canadian High Commission.

17:05 – Finally! Oxford Street! The best way to describe the crowd is French-Canadian: C’était noir de monde. The street looks and feels a lot like Montréal’s Sainte-Catherine shopping district, but even Sainte Catherine at its worst is never so difficult to navigate due to the sheer density of people crowding the sidewalks. I seek refuge inside the HMV, and while it is marginally less crowded, I can’t stop picking up great music CDs! Part of the fun is that England is home to a few of my favourite musical genres, most notably electronica, and I effortlessly see half-a-dozen CDs that are not just CHEAP (The first Pendulum disc is #4, whereas it cost me $32 to import on but either perpetually backordered or simply unavailable in Canada. I decide to stop picking up CDs when I can’t hold them in my hand, and even that only costs me #67. Whew, it’s a good thing I’m not here more often!

17:35 – It’s still madness outside on Oxford Street. I can sense my energies dwindling down, and so head out for the final planned event of the day: the massive Waterstone’s bookstore on Piccadilly (said to be the largest bookstore in Europe). But first, I have to get there, and following the recommended “Shopping district” in my guidebook lands me in the interesting Berwick, then the seedy Walker’s Lane, which is a suddenly narrower lane featuring all sorts of red-light-district adult entertainment. Oh, good one, guidebook: Just wait until I come back here with someone else. On the other hand, it does lead me pretty quickly to Picadilly Circus (even more crowded than before) and then on to Waterstone’s.

18:05 – After a hard day’s walk through a world-class city, what better balm for the brain than a leisurely exploration of a huge bookstore? Not that it’s all that huge: Comparable to a good downtown Chapters, Waterstone is nonetheless a grat window on the British publishing industry, and all of its quicks that set it apart from the US one. My browsing is not minutious, and I’m happy to just scan the shelves. In the end, I’m fairly reasonable and pick up only seven titles, all of them UK editions of books I hadn’t found in America. There are some UK-only books in there as well, including a near-future British political thriller that looks almost too delirious to be believed.

19:10 – As I get out of the bookstore, my purchases send one problem nearly to the top of the queue, just under “what am I eating tonight?”: I have to get a third piece of luggage to carry this, and other books, back to Ottawa. There is, in fact, a luggage shop right next to Waterstone: It’s closed by the time I see it. OK, I’ve got a plan B for that. For food, I choose to trust what I’ve learned from London: Having asked the Waterstone clerk about the neared Waitrose and gotten no uysable answer, I decide the forgo entering the nearby Picadilly Circus station, adn instead walk to the next-nearest Green park one, on the reasonable speculation that I will see a grocery store along the way. This proves correct, as an M&S Just Food grocery store is right next to the Green Park entrance. I pick up a few things (it’s the end of the day, and the shelves are practically empty –no joke!) and re-enter the underground system for a last time.

19:30 – The way back to the airport is painful in many ways. The underground, I’ve learned over the past week, is never really off-peak, and there are almost always people standing up. I happen to be and remain one of those people during the trip back to Heathrow. (I also speculate that Heathrow, being not jsut the last station, but a destination in its own right, probably sees more people boarding it to the end.) Then there’s the group of loud punters screaming and laughing themselves in the middle of our car (which is to say; right next to me.) Ah well; at least the train runs on time, and I make some headway throughout Extraordinary Engines.

20:20 – That Plan B for the Luggage? That’s right: buying it at the Heathrow Terminal 3 Lugage Shop spotted two days ago. Of course, buying luggage at an airport is a lesson in predatory pricing, but I’m still pretty happy with what I’ve got: I had been looking for a mid-sized duffel bag in-between my business laptop case and my too-gigantic clothe-hauler, and my new bag perfectly fits that spot. It looks sturday and convenient and even capable of working as a piece of carry-on luggage. And, best of all, it gulps the day’s purchase without any trouble, with space for what’s left at the hotel. Promising!

20:50 – Back at the hotel, I quickly eat the first part of my supper (ham and cheese sandwich: great. Feta Cheese and Herb Pastries? Fantastic!) and decide to go see what I’m missing at Eastercon three doors west.

21:00 – On the street to the convention, I briefly meet Peter Halasz, who tells me that the British bid of the 2014 Worldcon has settled on London as the destination. Ah-ah-ah… Then I briefly make it to the Chizine party to say hello to Claude Lalumiere, before being reminded once again that I can’t stand room parties (no space to move; few people I know; noise level too high for conversation) I spend the rest of the hour half-listening to a panel on webcomics and checking a few sites thanks to my iPod and the hotel’s wifi connection.

22:00 – Back to my room, where I lounge on ice-chilled fruit juice (discovery: The pomegranate juice from M&S is better cool that chilled) and write the day’s adventures. My feet huuuurt, as they should by now. But, aside from that one small incident in the morning, the weather has been on the comfortable side of cool during the day, not terribly windy (except near the river) and even sunny at times. Not a bad day for walking, can we say.

00:00 – OK, that’s enough. Tomorrow: We relax, and spend the day at Eastercon, never to walk more than 500 meters from my hotel room.

Sunday, April 4th – Easter at Eastercon

8:45 – Well, either I’m trying to get a head start on my jet-lag adjustment, or I’m just getting up later and later if I don’t have an alarm to nudge me. Ah well; I still manage to get the whole morning routine down without too much trouble, pre-pack my new duffel bag and hop over the Eastercon hotel in time for the beginning of the festivities.

10:00 – My first stop is the dealer’s room, where I scrutinize the outer tables for anything I might have missed. I wince at a few deals I may have made had I not previously bought some books in the same dealer’s room. (My Waterstone purchases, however, remain excellent and undiscounted here.) I remain reasonable and pick up only one book at the charitable-donations discount table –a let’s-trash-France “novel”. I spend the rest of the hour at the “Anthologies” panel, which is interesting in its own right.

11:00 – The Guest of Honor talk by Alastair Reynolds discusses the interaction between science and science-fiction –an old subject, but with a special kick coming from someone who has worked as a scientist for years. He’s up to the latest discoveries, and his discussions of seeing his fiction overthrown by latter discoveries has a Nivenesque quality. Too bad it has to end after just an hour!

12:00 – Oooh! A panel on reviewing! With my personal critic-hero John Clute! While the panel gets off a strange start with a screed against capitalism, and then another one for capitalism. By the time Clute ends gesticulating (and it seems to me that he’s almost as digitally-volubile as Jack Sparrow by now), we’ve spent an hour hearing about reviewing online.

13:00 – Another trip through the dealer’s room to scour the remaining islands. Two more books purchased –a specialized scholarly work about SF unfindable outside conventions, and a movie-horror novel (Theodore Roszak’s _Flicker_) I’ve been intermittently searching for years after hearing an enthusiastic recommendation. Wandering outside the convention (oh; art show’s closed), I speak to the Hills, a British fan couple, about their earlier presence at the reviewing panel and Readercon.

13:40 – Meeting at the Green Room for our upcoming panel on “Untranslated non-English SF”. It’s a great group; I get to meet up-and-coming hard-SF author Hannu ???, and tell him now much I’m looking forward to his first novel, coming out this fall. Later during the panel, I see with some amusement that there’s a big scratched-out “WHO??” next to my name on the notes scribbled by our moderator. I lose the rest of the group going to the panel room (I know a more efficient route) and have to entertain the growing crowd, but do manage to get Jetse de Vries to autograph the copy of his anthology Shine purchased at Waterstone.

14:00 – Well, we’re on, and it goes pretty well despite the rehearsed nature of presenting a list of pre-written recommendations to an audience. Our moderator is good at navigating those problems, and the whole thing goes smoothly. The Canada/Finland hockey rivalry is mentioned. I make an pitch to translate Vonarburg, Bergeron, McAllister, Gauthier, Sernine and Senécal. (Upon request, I slip my cheat-sheet to Gollancz editor Jo Fletcher) After the panel, Stéphane Marsan tells me he’s happy to hear that Eric Gauthier had a new novel coming out.

15:00 – After a bit of aimless wandering through the hotel, I decide to go end my Lent in a spectacular fashion –with a chocolate milkshake from the next-door McDonalds! Scandal! Now, there’s little doubt that there is probably no chocolate nor any milk in this chocolate milkshake –but it’s the processed desert that counts. Why sucking gamely on the milkshake through a straw, I read the John Clute’s “modern SF (1980-2003)” chapter in the academic SF critical anthology I purchased earlier. (And notice that the one Big SF writer of the decade that they don’t mention is Charles Stross, who broke through the novel market in 2003) I wish I could report a realization about the nature of McDonalds, chocolate milkshakes or processed desserts after a 40-day break, but all I’ve got is that this is a pretty average milkshake. I can either have or not have another. Frankly, a fruid salad would be excellent just now. Either that, or butter tarts.

16:00 – I start the hour at the DUFF panel, which is interesting but not transcendant (as a previous nominee tells us about inadvertently insulting all of the NZ national SF convention). I leave after a respectful while, spending much of the hour at the (well-attended) presentation about building a working fusion reactor, given by an actual scientist working on the project. There is a darkly amusing moment in which commercial reactors are said to be “25 years in the future” –immediately followed by an admission/explanation of why it’s the same “25 years away” being promised for the past 40 years. Nonetheless, they do seem closer to actual fusion power now than ever, with solid-enough international backing. The questions asked are interesting as well. Coming out of the room at the end of the presentation, Chris Garcia slips me a copy of a fanzine he co-edited, and upon later inspection, it proves full of great material about Nazi warships, London and Bad Cons.

17:00 – While attending a presentation on Information Decay and Archiving (hilariously attended by a bunch of thirtysomething guys who, I’m willing to bet, pretty much all work in the IT industry.), I get sucked into the first fifty pages of _Flicker_. The talk is interesting, but my sitting at the back and the presenter’s lack of a microphone damage how much of it I’m able to understand in-between snippets of the novel.

18:00 – BSFA awards ceremony. Four awards nicely stretched out over thirty minutes by obviously pre-written comic banter. Not bad, when put against other award ceremonies. The two co-hosts (one of them my moderator from the day’s earlier panel) are amusing. After the event ends, I slip by my hotel for so food and my netbook –since the Hugo Awards will be announced at 22:00, I won’t have time to blog the day’s events, so I might as well get an early start.

19:00 – Back at the hotel, a panel about virtual conventions. Since I have my computer, I might as well keep a few notes: “Virtual conventions – Especially useful for large international traveling conventions; what to broadcast? Business opportunities for virtual presence at conventions. Mention of Bittercon – virtual con without con control. Financing plan – sell virtual memberships? (Better for Worldcon – bundled with voting rights) Online mention of disabled, older fans. But; how to re-create the social nexus of a convention online? I am called upon to discuss the Carnaval Boreal 2010 experience, painfully give the URL. Some discussion of translation issues being assuaged by virtual “gisting”. A question about virtual decimating the physical; no, people will want to meet themselves (I contribute my “rise of the specialized convention via the internet” theory) 24-hour video room. “All of this is technically feasible if you can get the venue to provide the bandwidth.” Discussion of the technological sweet-spot. Farther-off discussion of search for a convention name and getting twitter streams and personal video feeds. Discussion of Second Life, not entirely enthusiastic. Dangers of convetions where everyone is reporting, no one is enjoying. Deviations on the strange twitter habits of the yung’ones, with similarities of early-London multiple post deliveries.”

20:00 – A panel on bad boys and why we like them. Deep in literary and SF references; quite enjoyable. Would be even more enjoyable without the dwarf literally breathing down my neck (don’t ask); and I who was about to comment on Eastercon’s more-socially-clueful-than-usual fans… I draft the day’s activities so far.

21:00 – My plan to wait for the Hugo Awards Nomination announcements by reading a bit of Flicker is pleasantly derailed, first by Cheryl Morgan debriefing on the “Virtual Convention” panel, and then my Murray Moore, with whom I talk Eastercon and other upcoming events.

22:00 – Hugo Award Nominees! The room fills up to standing-room capacity as Vince Doherty announces who made the Hugo Award shortlist this year. It’s an ecclectic, interesting, encouraging, satisfying group of nominees –I have issues with some of them, but overall I’m not displeased. (It’s a lineup that will encourage those previous complaining about the Hugo’s stoginess –there are a lot of young, connected nominees in the fiction categories) I already own four of the six nominated novels. About six nominees can pick me (or my name) out of a lineup. The ceremony is webcast, and there’s a feeling of A LOT of people watching over our shoulders. It’s sobering to think that the process launched by this nomination ceremony will end in a few months on the other side of the world at another convention, at another ceremony –and that I plan to be there as well.

23:00 – Since I don’t think I’ll be ble to top this experience as far as “being at the epicenter of the SF world” is concerned for the wekend, I say a temporary goodbye to Murray Moore (whom I should see next weekend at Ad Astra) and take my leave from Eastercon. Back at the hotel room, I finish my food supplies, complete the day’s adventures, read up on and make sure my luggage is OK. The plan for tomorrow is simple: get up laste, get to the airport, wait, take the plane, wait, get home, do groceries, sleep. We’ll see how THAT goes. But given airport connectivity, don’t expect any updates before I’m back home, safe and sound.

Monday, April 5th – The long fight back home

8:00 – Oh, very funny internal alarm clock: Now that I don’t need to be up and at the airport before late morning, I’m awake well before 8:00, and the iPod’s wake-up call is just a reminder. Shower, breakfast, even re-packing my new duffel bag take no time at all, so much so that I’m ready to leave an hour before my schedule says so. Eh; since nothing is keeping me here, why wait?

9:00 – Bus to Heathrow, walk to Terminal 3. All routine by now. I’m a bit worried about the weight of my book-filled duffel bag: Even having transferred the two heaviest books onto my carry-on luggage, I’m worried that I may have gone over the limit… and I’m finding it harder to be as mobile as I usually am with just carry-on bags.

9:30 – Relaxing by eating a Boston Cream doughnut at Krispy Kreme. 40 days of fruit salads may have had a more lasting impact than I thought, since I find the donut pretty ordinary.

9:45 – Into the Heathrow security apparatus. Despite the scare stories about full-body scanners, security isn’t too bad. The lines are longer than Ottawa, but the process is pretty easy and quick.

10:00 – Inside the Heathrow Terminal 3 waiting area. Contrarily to the other airports, Heathrow huddles all cleared travelers in a central area, and opens the specific gates less than an hour before the flight, almost as it’s time to board. I’m not too fond of the practice, as it forces a lot of people in a generally small purgatory area. I’m surprised at some of the upper-end brand names in the mini shopping-mall (Bulgari, Harrods, etc.). A look at HMV reveals nothing interesting; a walk through the WH Smith bookshop ends up with me buying two thriller (including an espionnage thriller partially set in London, and an special airport-edition trade-paperback of Lee Child’s “61 Hours”, at the top of the UK best-seller lists, but unavailable in North America before mid-May.)

10:15 – Still two hours to go before the gate opens for my flight. I settled down to read Flicker, slowly and carefully since it’s pretty good. One kid keeps running around and slapping my knee. Have i mentioned I’m not too fond of Heathrow’s gate management technique?

12:10 – My gate opens, but I barely have time to get there that my row of seat is already boarding. Whee!

12:45 – The flight is full, and I’m sitting next to a thin and nervous transsexual germophobe who has not only unpacked a full travel kit around and in front of her, but frantically proceeds to wipe down all nearby surfaces with antibacterial wipes as soon as she sits down. This is going to be long flight; I settles in my seat and keep going into Flicker. As our plane stops while waiting for a spot on the runway, I can see my hotel.

13:15 – We’re in the air! Wheee!

(Time-warp: Five hours in the past, even though the airplane clock hasn’t adpted to the recent UK time-change and so is one hour too early)

15:15 – Final approach to Ottawa. The flight felt long but has been uneventful, aside from the frequent antibacterial measures taken by my seat neighbor. Food was OK (warm fish+rice, bread, pasta salad and soft cookie for main meal, lamb pastry for snack), turbulence was slight. Flicker ends up pretty good; a shame I can’t say the same about Banks’ Look to Windward. Abbott’s Adrenaline has a promising start, while the third Hamilton generally seems better than the first two ones in the trilogy. As usual, Ottawa Customs take a long time because it treats an entire flight at once (and I’m in the back). Waiting for my luggage also takes a while, and my humble duffel bag seems to be the last one to be put on the carousel; it reminds me once again of why I usually stick to carry-ons.

16:00 – Hurray! The home team is there to greet me and bring me back home! The next two hours and a half are made of Lent-breaking Dairy Queen treats, grocery shopping and a debriefing/supper.

19:00 – Finally sitting down at the computer (and a rock-solid wired Internet connection!) to wrap up this trip report. The butter tart I’m enjoying is the first post-Lent processed dessert that lives up to its increasingly mythical stature during this particularly frustrating Lent period.

Summing up…

The conventions: Two well-organized conventions, with plenty of interesting people, topics and atmosphere. Too bad the hotels are so badly organized; still, the quality of the discussions was worth it.

The cities: London is wonderful; Paris is OK. Clearly, there’s little doubt in my mind now that I’m genetically French but culturally British: French girls seemed more attractive to me, but there are times where I think that the entire French way of doing things is not just unintuitive, but actively counterproductive (I originally wrote “mentally retarded” here, but then I remembered that I only saw Paris.) London seems far more culturally diverse and able to integrate modernity within a historical framework: Paris, on the other hand, seems stuck in its own history until you actively search out on the fringes. But, you know, that’s a good reason to go back and investigate further. I certainly wouldn’t mind cooking my way through grocery stores on both sides of the Channel.

The trip itself: Well-planned, generally well-executed and highly rewarding. Part of the goal of this trip was being able to set precedents that I could follow for future European tourism, and while it was more complicated than traveling to the US, the result is so favorable that it opens up doors for travel to other big European cities. Rome tops the list of new destinations, with Berlin in second place. Although simply returning to London wouldn’t be a bad choice by itself. We! Will! See!

As for me, I’m signing out of this travel blog. Enjoy it while it stays up, because I will make it disappear as soon as I can put up a more coherent travel report for both London and Paris.

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