Monday, January 29, 2018

London: Expensive but Well-Run, except in Heathrow aka Hell

There isn't much to say about London that hasn't already been said, so I'll keep this short. 

1. Almost all of London's museums are free, though they ask for donations. Everyone knows about the British Museum and the Rosetta Stone, but don't miss the National Portrait Gallery right around the corner from the more famous National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Many people, including me, also overlook the Victoria and Albert Museum. 
Me, hanging out with ol' George.
2. England's "mature" cheeses are delicious. So is Scottish fruit jam. 

3. London's bus system is fantastic, and some buses run 24 hours a day; however, they do not accept cash. You must buy an "Oyster" card (same system as Hong Kong) and put cash on the card for single rides, or purchase a daily or weekly option. The daily or weekly option covers all public transport within London, including the subway (aka the Underground), buses, and trains. I bought an Oyster card from an Underground station and chose the weekly option because I wanted peace of mind when getting from Point A to Point B, which often requires bus, train, and Underground usage. Even though I speak English fluently (most of the time), I needed help buying the pass from the machine, because the interface isn't intuitive. Most tourists will need a card covering Zones 1 and 2. 
Overall, London has excellent public transportation but also one of most complex systems in the world. When people joke about the fascists and "trains running on time," they're providing a valuable history lesson: if day-to-day issues like public infrastructure don't work consistently, the most aggressive politicians tend to get elected--and rarely focus their gaze only on the mundane. In any case, don't hesitate to ask easily-identifiable employees at the stations to assist you--all of them were uniformly helpful and knowledgeable. 

4.  I loved the British Library. It hosted a fantastic Harry Potter exhibit (entrance required a fee), but even without the special exhibit, the library would have been a great experience. Check out the cafe inside.
Visitors to the special exhibition are *not* allowed to take photos.
I have no idea where this photo of Rowling's early drawing of the Potter characters comes from.
No idea whatsoever. 
5.  Speaking of Harry Potter, if you want to see where much of J.K. Rowling's inspiration comes from, visit Oxford and Cambridge. They're only about 2 hours by train from London's city center and well-worth seeing. Though Cambridge is larger than Oxford, a daytrip is all you need for both cities. Try to arrive early--some of Cambridge's attractions are only open between 12 and 2pm. I liked Cambridge's vibe much more than Oxford's, but Oxford had incredible exhibits in a tiny museum inside Weston Library, including a handmade Christmas card by J.R.R. Tolkien. 
Not allowed to take photos in Weston Library.
Once again, I have no clue where this photo of a page from JRR Tolkien's 1936 Christmas card comes from. 

Note that out-of-London trips are not included in the Oyster card weekly or daily pass--you must buy separate tickets. 

6.  Don't miss Harrods, the original "everything store." It's easily accessible by bus. You can spend hours in this massive place and never get bored. You might even get lucky and see a magic show in the toy section. 
Now owned by Qatar, but formerly owned by Princess Diana's almost-father-in-law.

7.  I'll end with two cautions. England is not part of the Schengen zone, so many tourists, including Americans, receive six month visas on arrival. Partly as a result of this longer-than-typical visa provision, Heathrow airport's immigration staff are known to overreach. 

I've had issues with Heathrow airport's immigration staff every single time I've visited. I truly believe most of their immigration employees are incompetent, poorly trained, and/or do not want to be there. Stated another way, Heathrow's immigration officers are the only people in the world who make America's notoriously bad TSA look good. In a city as vibrant as London, perhaps Heathrow is where you apply to work when you give up on your dreams--and your life. Nevertheless, there's no excuse for asking tourists totally irrelevant questions. Accepting irrelevant questions as normal rather than offensive and illegal creates a slippery slope where privacy is nonexistent and employees provoke animosity against all government services. 

In my case, after presenting evidence I had an e-ticket to the Dominican Republic from Heathrow, I was asked where I was going after the Dominican Republic. Last time I checked, despite Sir Francis Drake's remarkable prowess, the Dominican Republic isn't under the United Kingdom's current legal jurisdiction nor was it ever an official British colony.

Let's quickly consider the purposes of immigration control and the laws immigration agents are tasked with enforcing:

a. Are you a criminal or will you be engaging in criminal activity?
b. Are you going to overstay your visa?
c. Do you have enough money or access to money to stay in the country you are visiting without becoming a burden on public welfare or accessing other public services you have not paid into? 

d. Are you here for a legitimate purpose or do you intend on working off the books? 

All the questions above logically relate to the ultimate goal of determining whether a visitor is entering a country for a legitimate reason. If you don't have money, you might engage in criminal activity or work illegally. If you cannot articulate a clear reason for visiting or if you don't have evidence of an outward-bound ticket, you might be intending to overstay your visa. If you have a criminal history, you are less likely to be entering for a legitimate reason. 

Thus, questions like how long you are staying, where you are staying, whether you have credit cards, how much cash you have on you, whether you have evidence of an outward bound ticket, whether you have family members in the country, what your job is, and even whether you are pregnant, all logically relate to the reasons Parliament passed laws empowering immigration and customs agents. In short, the Immigration Control Act of any country, not just Britain's, is designed to eliminate visitors who will pose a burden on the country's services or people. It is not a license to ask visitors stupid questions.

When I deliberately raised a ruckus with the Heathrow employee after she posed questions only a moron would ask a visitor with over 30 stamps in his passport and evidence of an outward bound ticket, she called her manager. The way I play this game is simple: if you screw up, you are either racist or incompetent--pick one. If you, the manager, accept your employee is incompetent, then you must admit you are responsible for poor training and oversight. In other words, you put your own job at risk. In the alternative, if you, the manager, accept your employee might be racist, what exactly do you do when you can't discipline her without the possibility of spending taxpayer monies against an entrenched union? I like this game. I encourage any government employee or contractor to play it with me at any airport. 

After checking my evidence of an outward bound ticket and directing me through the same process a second time, the higher-up who came to see me walked away speechless when I asked whether it was logical to send me back to the same immigration employee I had accused of racism or incompetence. I was let through the second time under the same employee and supervision of another manager. 

Moving on, the second caution about the United Kingdom is its prices. Even with the pound's devaluation post-Brexit, everything in London is probably more expensive than back home, unless you're from San Francisco or Tokyo. Should that discourage you from visiting London? I suppose it depends on whether you are willing to endure Heathrow and its unmerry band of men and women. Good luck. 

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