travel, Writing

Innocent Abroad, or, Why I am not a travel writer

When I was thinking about genre writing a few months ago, my DH suggested that I could do travel writing, because I like description and items of historical interest. I tried to write about the Alachua Sink, an interesting local site, and it was just awful. But then, I remembered that a couple of weeks ago, Anne-Mhairi Simpson asked about jet lag and international travel on her . I gave her the abbreviated version of my flight to London this past February, but I thought I would give the longer version here.

The trip was a long, hard one. DH and I left the house at 3am, as it is a two and a half hour drive to the Orlando airport. About an hour down the road, I realized that I forgot to pack my phone charger. Oh, just lovely; I suppose better that than, oh say, my passport, but I was still irritated at myself. On the way to New York, I had a roughly 5-year-old child kicking my seat for the entire flight; the two plus hours felt like five or six. The mother was oblivious to her child, as is too often the case when children are annoying the stuffing out of a stranger. The Hispanic couple seated next to me argued in fast and furious Spanish the entire time, starting when the husband asked for beer during the beverage service, at 9am, mind. After trying not to listen to his wife screech at him, trying so hard not to understand Spanish, for the next 2 hours, punctuated by the little angel behind me keeping iambic pentameter time with her feet, I could have used a beer myself.

Once on the ground, I searched fruitlessly for the shuttle service between terminals. Who would have thought that the clever (and very small) signs for the “JetTrain” would be for the shuttle? Oh, all right, everyone would, but I plead lack of sleep. When I got to the terminal, I found that I have not quite gotten to the terminal. “Yeah, it’s over there, across the street and down a block or so.” So, I took my very tired, very Floridian self out into the snow (yes, softly falling snow), which thankfully was not sticking but melting immediately.

I arrived in the strangest terminal I’ve ever seen. There was a large common area, like most airline terminals, but over half of it was a café/diner/restaurant; it was very hard to find a seat or power plug (for my newly purchased phone charger) that was not in a café and therefore only open to paying customers. When the gate was finally announced, I wandered over to it, thankful to get away from the oddity of the café-only main lounge.

Once at the gate, I found yet another café; there were four seats for disabled passengers, but I had not yet sunk to the level of limping over to those (and there were no power outlets by them anyway). I broke down and bought myself a sandwich, hungry for the power plug more than the food. Either because this emergency charger is a generic one, or because I was being punished for some unknown karmic act, it took ages to charge the phone enough for it to stop shrilly announcing its need for power anytime I checked. I learned later in London, it takes over 6 hours to charge fully.

I looked around to see that in the back corner of the café was a reader for the boarding passes, in front of double doors. When the call came to board, we all filed through the café to the reader, and through the double doors to find ourselves on a jetway. It was like some Kafkaesque entry into Narnia, “Ha, see! You were in an airport all this time, and we fooled you! Surprise!” I had waited for over eight hours (cheap tickets often have brutal layovers) and just wanted to get going.

Falling into a fitful sleep, I was soon jerked awake when a very large man who was seated in front of me reclined to the point that I felt as though I should wash his hair, or shave him, or something. He shifted about every five to ten minutes, causing the seat to groan aloud at the mistreatment, and to make me fear for my shiny new knee being crushed by the whole thing crashing down upon it. I had weird nightmarish dreams, of which I remember none of the details, but merely the sense of unease and discomfort; I do remember wishing that I would not wake up until we had landed.

Well, I got my wish. I fell asleep with my usual wonderful timing—about an hour before I had to get up. I woke to the flight attendants telling the fellow in front of me to put the seat forward for landing. I was still pretty muzzy, but very happy to be landing. We all filed out of the plane and were directed toward Customs. As I entered the large room, my attention was caught by the long queues on the right side of the room: green for UK and EU passport holders; blue for other passport holders with nothing to declare; red for aliens with things to declare. I got into the blue line, and wait, shuffle; wait, shuffle. Finally, I got to the front of the line, and the agent asked for my entry card. Huh? I look around and everyone is holding an entry card. I must have slept through the flight attendants handing those out to passengers.
I said,” Oh, they didn’t give me one,” thinking, Oh blast!
She pointed to the other side of the room, where small tables were set with entry cards on them, and said, “Go fill one out.”

Getting out of line, I went over to the table, and picked up one of the pens attached to the table. Like everywhere else in the world where those pens are attached, it doesn’t work. I tried the next one, and the next one, and went to the next table, trying about seven pens in all, none of which work.

Okay, I’m a rare books librarian. I do not have ink pens in my office; I do have several nice fountain pens, but the reason they are called fountain pens become painfully obvious when you fly with them. Therefore, all I have with me is a nice mechanical pencil. Sigh. I got back in line, wait, shuffle; wait, shuffle. The same agent holds her hand out for the entry card; I said, “I don’t have a pen.”

She pointed to the tables, “There are pens on the tables.”
I replied, “There are no pens that write on those tables.”
She handed me a pen, and waved me back to the other side of the room. So I filled out the form, scrabbling through my papers to find the postal code for the hotel, and got back in line. Well, by now, there was no line. I handed the entry card to the same agent, who then held out her hand for my passport. She looks at it, and sighed, “American.” Ah, welcome to London to you too, my dear.

She stamped my passport with a certain disdain, and directed me to the exit. I wandered through an empty Customs area, and emerged on the other side. I spied an Information booth, so I went over there to ask about charging my phone. The fellow first said that plugs are different in the UK, and I will need to go buy an adapter. Okay, I was starting to get fed up with the assumption that I was so ignorant that I would not know that, but I needed his help, so I just said that I understood, and where would there be an outlet to charge my phone? He said, “We have no electrical outlets at Heathrow.”
I just stared at him, biting my tongue when I wanted to say, “You’ve figured out how to run a 21st-century airport without electricity?”

I thanked him and wandered off. Right by the front doors of the terminal (read, cold as the depths of Milton’s Hell, with the automatic doors opening to provide a refreshing stiff breeze every few seconds), I find a pillar with an electrical outlet, and plug in my phone and adapter. It was still useless except as a brick, and I knew that DH was waiting to know that I had arrived safely. Oh, and this charger freezes the phone, so I cannot call or text or anything when it is plugged into this charger. Very helpful. I saw an “arm-and-a leg-required” credit card calling station. If I stretched the cord, and went into a yoga position, I could still hold the useless phone while calling DH on the credit card station. He answered the phone, and asked how I was doing. Not the think to ask. “Awful! I’m awful! The phone won’t charge and I can’t use it when it’s charging and people are mean and it’s cold and . . .”

The poor dear handled his wife melting down 4000 miles away with great aplomb. He assured me that there were nice people somewhere, and I just needed to calm down and find them. He kept saying “Deep breath,” and I could only remember LaMaze classes. It made me laugh, and got me to calm down.

I managed to keep the call short, worried about the cost, and not wanting to sell either son into indebted servitude. Giving up on the phone charging, I saw a currency exchange and went over to get some GBP. The fellow was nice (I almost kissed him) and told me that I should use the ATM and save myself the commission he would have to charge; he also pointed me to the “Heathrow Express” signs down the way. The person there was also very nice, and helped me work through the procedure to get a ticket that would take me beyond Paddington.

I had been travelling over 28 hours at this point, so I dragged my poor self and my luggage to the train. Once settled on the train, I could relax to look at my surroundings. The first thing I noticed were the chimneys—there were three or four on every building, lovely old-fashioned brick chimneys. Need I say, we don’t have too many chimneys in Florida—they are just a tad superfluous. Even up in the Midwest, we don’t tend to have individual chimneys for each residence, but usually some common stack for the entire building.

I was also struck by how several things are the same. Buildings that back onto railroad tracks look the same, in a way, in both the UK and the US. While the train was nicer, faster, and quieter than most American trains I’ve been on, it was an analogous experience. But then we pulled into Paddington Station. Oh my goodness. Most of the “rail cathedrals” in the US have been long torn down or remodeled into other things, but here was a station in all its Vanderbiltian glory. Soaring iron archways sing the power and fascination of the railways. Travel shall set you free; it did, in so many ways. I tried not to be a real yokel, and endeavored to act like I walked through a glorious station like this every day. We have almost nothing like this in the States any more, where our industrial cathedrals are sports arenas, sold to businesses for advertising.

The woman at the information desk, and the woman was very helpful with my questions about the tube; slowly I was starting to feel better, and think that maybe people weren’t mean here. Subways are so different in London, at least from Washington, Atlanta, and Chicago, the only three I really know well. London’s really are tubes, 15-20 feet high, clearly tunnels dug for the trains and nothing more. Washington especially has made its platforms grandiose caverns, with the ceilings 40-60 feet overhead. One does not feel that sense of tunneling under the earth that is so very prevalent in London. It didn’t bother me, even though I am slightly claustrophobic, but it was just so different.

The other thing that really struck me is that the US is such a melting pot. Here the British look, well, British, the French, French, the Scandinavians clearly Nordic, Swedish, Danish; I look like all and none at the same time. For all my vaunted “Irish- and Welsh-American,” I look muddy and mutt-like in comparison to the real Welsh and Irish. It was quite a revelation.

I went the wrong way on the Circle line, but tried to look self-assured and managed to figure it out without looking a total eejit. When I got to Victoria, I realized that I was supposed to have gotten a ticket all the way to Pimlico, not just to Victoria. By this time, my native self-confidence had returned and I figured, eh, in Chicago, you can pay the difference in fare to get out, so I just got back on the tube to Pimlico.

When I got there, I couldn’t see anything like what I’d seen in Chicago, so I asked an attendant for help. He opened up the disabled exit and motioned me through. Someone came up and asked him something; I was hanging around waiting for him to tell me how much more I owed. He noticed me, and said, “Just go on, love, it’s fine.” Once again, I was struck by how nice people were.

Oddly enough, it was only when I surfaced above ground and saw the “familiar from pictures” tube icon that it really hit me that I was in London. It really knocked me off my pins; I had truly traveled all this way on my own. The hotel was only a few blocks away; I checked in with the extremely nice staff, went to my tiny room, where the only thing I cared about was that it had a bed. I forced myself to unpack and hang everything up, put everything in its place. I sat on the bed to decide what to do next, and woke up seven hours later.