September 29, 2015

Observations from the Mothership: Days 12 & 13

The Days I Lounged in London and Flew Home

"Buzzzzzzzzzt!  Buzzzzzzt!!

I'm pretty sure it's not every day that one gets awakened by a text message buzzing under one's ass, or at least it's not an everyday occurrence for me.  But that's pretty much what seems to happen when one climbs into bed after a very long, very busy day and promptly face plants into one's phone.  Turns out traveling is exhausting--at least the way I do it is.  Clearly I need to write a bestseller that gets optioned for a movie and thus become independently wealthy so I can afford to have drivers escorting me from destination to destination the next time I travel overseas.  On the plus side, I'm now positive that I've lost some weight because none of my pants want to stay up. I'm currently maybe a pound or two away from causing an international incident.

My buzzing phone dealt with, I dragged myself out of my cozy, warm bed just in time to make it downstairs to the complimentary breakfast buffet.  Even though I was awake under extreme protest, I had to appreciate the variety of items on offer at the buffet (look at me, speaking all Britishly!).  There were several fruits on one cart, an omelet station, assorted breads and pastries, yogurts, juices, and of course all the makings of a full English breakfast on the hot bar.  I sampled a modest variety of items and then drug myself back upstairs and attempt to accomplish some writing under the possibly unrealistic assumption that I could keep myself upright and conscious for a change instead of slamming face-first into my electronic devices yet again.  As it happens I did not get much writing done, but I did thoroughly enjoy decadently lolling around in bed all afternoon after a hectic two weeks.  Sometimes the simplest things are the most pleasurable.

My cozy "Exectutive" room.

In the evening I forced myself to go downstairs for dinner at the hotel restaurant rather than copping out by ordering room service and continuing to hide out upstairs.  The restaurant was called Oscar's and looked more like a bar than a restaurant. After my quiet day in I opted for soup and salad instead of something heavier. The French onion soup arrived in a giant bread bowl and was teeming with so many onions that I could hardly get to the broth; it looked rather like an explosion of translucent worms trying to climb out and infest the restaurant.  Mmmmm, tasty! My efforts to consume the soup were not aided by it soaking almost immediately into the dense bread bowl, but I spooned up as much as I could before tearing off bits of bowl to eat. Edible dishware is always a novelty.  Meanwhile, the chicken Caesar salad was absolutely delicious and I scarfed  down every single bite.  I hadn't really planned to order dessert after the meal, but it seemed a shame not to enjoy one last sugary hurrah before leaving the country in the morning so I requested a simple ice cream sundae.  The small, overpriced sundae I anticipated arrived in a 12" tall parfait glass and had two different flavors of ice cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream (the good kind), assorted sprinkles, and a large cookie/waffle wedge perched on top.  My jaw dropped at the immensity of the creamy vision before me.  Rather than stay there sucking down a mound of ice cream alone like some jilted lover, I paid my check and took my delectable plunder upstairs where I could savor it in private and not while I was surfing the internet like a sad, pathetic woman at all.

I spent the rest of my evening packing, which involved redistributing clothing and gifts/souvenirs between my original carry-on bag and the new cheap one I was able to purchase in the hotel gift shop.  I put most of the gifts in the crappy new suitcase to take on the plane with me, choosing instead to stow all my toiletries and dirty clothes in the sturdier bag with which I'd started and which would likely survive molestation by baggage handlers.  Besides, I figured if some clothes went missing on the way home it would be no great loss, but I wanted to make sure I personally kept track of all the good and/or irreplaceable stuff.  Once everything was stowed to my satisfaction, I selected clothes for the trip home, washed up, and climbed into bed.

The next morning my alarm went off first at 5:30 am, then again at 6 am.  (I always set a back-up alarm to give myself a little extra time to become coherent as I wake up.)  Then I promptly fell back asleep for an additional 20 minutes.  I woke up, saw the time, employed some of the new British swear words I'd learned, and then quickly dressed and shoved the last few things in my suitcase.  I grabbed a light breakfast at the Executive Customers Only buffet, bags in tow, then checked out and plowed down the hotel walkway like a steam roller to Heathrow's Terminal 4 where I checked my bag and collected my boarding pass.

Staying near the terminal proved a canny choice because, in spite of my slight oversleeping, I arrived with plenty of time to stand in line in the bowels of the airport with my VAT receipts and wait to process them for refunds.  The line moved quite quickly and efficiently though I was slightly annoyed to discover that I'd been misled about the refunds when I saw people standing in line with stacks of receipts 2 inches tall.  I'd been told you could only request up to 6 refunds and I didn't find out that each receipt required a specially-printed form from the original vendor in order to be processed.  So my most expensive purchases were not eligible.  Sigh.  When I reached the front of the queue I submitted what I had, was told I'd get the refund in around 3 weeks (which I still haven't gotten), and was sent blithely on my way.

Back upstairs I walked past a currency exchange which did not appear busy and so decided to go ahead and change my money there before heading through security rather than have to make an extra trip to the bank at home even though I knew I'd take a little bit of a hit on the exchange there.  Just as I was walking up to the counter, however, some Middle Eastern dude walked up in front of me with his entire family and a 4" stack of VAT forms.  I assumed he'd get shipped downstairs to the processing center like everyone else, but he didn't.  So I waited patiently in the queue like a good faux Brit while he was processed, fully expecting the other girl at the counter to call me up at any moment.  Which she didn't.  So I waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  As I stood, I watched the man's children wander about, clearly as bored and impatient as I was.  His daughter, who was maybe 10, was wearing a baseball cap with the brim pulled over to the side in the gangsta hip-hop style, making it look wildly incongruous next to her pink Hello, Kitty! sweatshirt.

Twenty minutes later the queue was some 8 people deep and the second girl still wasn't serving anyone.  I was becoming antsier by the second, wanting to get through security and off to my gate.  I know I probably should have just left and changed the money at home, but eventually I got to the point where I want to WIN rather than having waited so long in vain.  Silly, I know.  Sometimes it's just about the principle of the thing.

Finally another woman came to the desk and changed out places with the one not waiting on anybody.  Just as she did, some woman jumped the line and walked directly up to her to be served.  My first thought while glaring at her was "Dammit, woman, we're British!!  We QUEUE!!!!"  Two weeks here and apparently I've already gone native.  The line-jumper did her exchange, then I jumped the queue and went over as well.  I guess the staff had assumed that everyone in line had VAT slips (which, to be fair, several did) and so neither employee had asked the rest of us forward as a result.  I got my £70 exchanged into $50 or so, taking a far bigger hit than expected.  Or maybe I have the amounts backwards; at this point the morning is a bit of a blur.

My business completed, I headed over to queue up for the scanners, where I sailed through security.  I did not have to take off my shoes, I did not need 15 bins to hold my belongings, I did not have to stand in the cancer chamber, and I did not get over-enthusiastically frisked by overzealous and self-important security staff.  I couldn't believe it--me, simpatico with airport security.  Who knew miracles were performed at Heathrow? As far as I'm concerned, this is yet more proof that I belong in Great Britain; clearly London loves me far more than the US, where TSA mocks and torments me at every possible turn.  I retrieved my things from the bin on the belt and headed off to my gate, which I found surprisingly devoid of passengers.  I just figured I'd gotten there early in spite of the financial queues and that people would continue to arrive in due course.  They didn't.

While I waited, a lovely British woman in a Delta uniform sat next to me and asked if I would be willing to do a survey.  I figured it was as good a way to pass the time as any, so agreed and ended up subjected to a good 15 minutes of fairly personal questions about my travel habits and my opinions on the airport/airline/etc.  I couldn't really be irritated by the lengthy survey questions, though, because everything sounds better in a British accent; even swear words like "Fook!!" or "Slutty bitch!" which I'm supposed to find offensive just make me giggle maniacally instead.  Shortly after the lady finished with me my flight began boarding.  I walked on early and stowed my suitcase, then sat in my aisle seat to await the inevitable line of people smacking their bags into my head as they passed.  They never came.  By the time the door the attendants closed the door there were maybe all of 60 passengers on the plane.  It was absolutely glorious.  Everyone spread out all over the plane.  I had a row all to myself, as did a guy next to me who spent most of the flight stretched out across all three seats and fast asleep.  Easily the most comfortable and most quiet flight I've ever been on, this unexpected boon was made all the more priceless given the several-hour length of the transatlantic journey.  Every flight should be even half so peaceful...I highly recommend traveling like this whenever possible; it's infinitely preferable to being crammed into the cabin like drunken college students into a Volkswagen.

Taxiing down the runway proved unexpectedly emotional for me; when the wheels left the tarmac and London began to shrink in my window I choked up, my eyes welling with tears.  The funny thing is it's not like I've never been to England before--I was there with my family 15 years ago and although I enjoyed my visit back then, this trip was somehow very different. Certainly I reveled in my British adventures this time around, but I was still surprised to be overcome at liftoff...surprised to find just exactly how much I truly love this amazing country and how much it means to me. Perhaps this was merely the result of being in Great Britain on my own or perhaps it had something to do with my newly-discovered genetic ties to the country. All I know is that the history, the architecture, the food, the atmosphere, the people, the language--everything, really--has now become a deeply-imbedded part of my soul and I felt a physical pain at leaving.

I didn't sleep much on the trip back; I wanted to remain awake so I could recalibrate my internal clock more quickly once home (not that it worked, mind you).  Instead, I plugged my earphones into the seat-back console, cranked up some tunes, and spent half the flight writing and the other half surfing the internet.  You've got to love technology--ten years ago it never would have occurred to me that I would one day be able to access the internet from some 30,000 miles above the earth.  Pretty neat trick, really.  Even better was being able to use my would-be neighbor's tray table for food so I didn't have to move my laptop from my own tray table.  Life is all about the little things.

Several hours later, we began our descent towards Philadelphia.  As the city grew larger in my window I turned off and stowed my laptop, thinking how surreal I felt to be back in the States as though I were just starting my holiday rather than finishing it.  It seemed like I should be heading home to Europe at any moment.  Two weeks later I was only just beginning to feel "back to normal," or at least as "normal" as one can feel after leaving a big chunk of one's heart with the cobblestones and grey skies of Edinburgh, with new friends in the Doctor Who podcasting community, with the ancient stones on Salisbury plain, with the calligraphic kiss of Magna Carta and the heraldry of her staunch protectors in Salisbury Cathedral, with the pubs and theaters and bustling streets of London, with the sea lapping at the shores of Aberystwyth while gulls keen overhead, with archives full of books and the heady, musty perfume of age and knowledge leaking out from between their pages, and with the silky slate and ancestral castle walls of Cardiff.

"On final approach to Philadelphia..."

All things considered, I could not have asked for a more meaningful or fulfilling birthday trip. In truth, if governments these days weren't so anal about immigration I'd be on a plane tomorrow, work visa in hand, bursting to become an American expatriate.  Seriously. America may be far more familiar to me, but the United Kingdom feels far more like where I belong.  Must be the genes of all those British ancestors flowing through my veins and calling me home.

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