Friday, December 12, 2008

The Trip of a Lifetime: Part 2

At the end of Part 1, Clem and I were stuck in a train shuttle, along with a number of other people, just yards from the airport terminal at Standsted Airport in England. After sitting there for about 20 minutes, with the air growing more and more stuffy, we were all beginning to lose our patience. I was at the point where if I didn’t get out of there soon, I was in danger of losing more than my patience.

Finally, a young man came from somewhere in the back and opened the door of a call box on the wall near my seat. He punched some buttons and if memory serves me right, he spoke into the box. I asked him if he had been in this situation before. He said, “No, this is the first time I’ve ever been here.” I don’t know who he was, but he seemed to attract some attention, as two men soon came from the tunnel behind us, pried open the door, and led us to an emergency exit behind the train. We went down steps to a grassy area on the level below the train platform.

As we stood with our rescuers on a wide concrete walk beside the grassy area, waiting for who-knew-what, a small pickup with “airport security” painted on the door roared up and a short, round man with a red face, wearing a fluorescent green vest popped out. If we were expecting an apology or some expression of sympathy for our “inconvenience,” we were to be disappointed.

The man, whose actions brought to mind the term, “cock of the walk,” came strutting over to our group and shouted, “I WANT TO KNOW WHICH ONE OF YOU HAS BEEN SMOKING IN MY TRAIN!”

For the first time I noticed that several young men who had been in our train car were smoking. I would usually notice it right away, but for once I hadn’t. If any of them had been smoking on the train, I had been unaware of it. While there may have been “no smoking” signs on the train, we had seen none after being released from it.

One young man standing just in front of me slipped his cigarette down the side of his leg, dropped it on the ground, and slid his foot over it. After an awkward pause that must not have been as long as it seemed, another young man stepped up to the “security guard” and said, “I have. So are you going to arrest me?”

Caught off guard, the cocky little guy just stuttered, turned around, and stalked back to his truck. One of the young men turned to me and said, "There must have been four or five of us smoking. But it seems to me that shouldn't be the most important issue at this point."

In a few minutes a bus pulled up to the end of the walk and we were instructed to board it. As we were entering the bus, our cell phone rang. Kathleen had been circling the airport, and failing to see us, was about to start efforts to locate us. We were so thankful to find that our cell phone was working on that side of the big pond.

The bus, after a trip of about a hundred feet, pulled up in front of a terminal entrance and we were told to exit and go into the terminal. We could have walked and carried our luggage for that distance in a tenth of the time we had spent waiting for the bus. But no pedestrians were allowed in the area.

Since we had been detained so long before reaching the terminal, we were relieved to see that the crowds had already been through customs and there were no long lines. After a hasty trip to the restroom, we claimed our luggage and went through customs with no problems.

Then, thinking we were home free, we located an outside door in the front of the building, crossed the street, rolling our overloaded bags behind us, and went to the far end of the fence that ran parallel to the street to wait for Kathleen. We soon saw signs proclaiming, “No pick-ups here. Departing passengers only. Violators will face a stiff fine.” Two haughty guards in the traditional fluorescent green vests were strutting up and down the walk to discourage anyone with any intention of violating their rules.

The last time Kathleen had been at the airport, picking up passengers there was allowed. Rules had been changed without her knowledge. After asking someone for instructions, we dragged our luggage back down the walk, across the street, back through the terminal, down a long ramp, and back out to a spot directly below the place we had been before. Then we called Kathleen to let her know where we were. She said she had been circling the area in front of the terminal, and seeing the new signs, was afraid to stop. She had noticed one of the guards writing down her tag number, but, as she said, there was nothing he could do, since she never stopped.

Finally, after another long walk, we managed to get together. What a relief it was to see a familiar face, a person driving her own vehicle, even if it was on the wrong side of the road.

Kathleen has been driving in England for about 20 years now, so she was comfortable and competent in the surprisingly heavy traffic. Clem and I found the roundabouts especially confusing, which reinforced our conviction that we didn’t want to try to drive in England. We made the trip to their house in good time, and what a relief it was to get there.

Before we left home, Kathleen had asked if we/I would like to attend a concert while we were visiting them. She didn’t mention that it was in London, because we had said we didn’t especially care about going to London; we were more interested in seeing the countryside. Clem had no desire to attend a concert, which was good news for Doug, as he didn’t want to go either.

Unfortunately, our unplanned overnight stay in New York had made us a day late in arriving in England, and the concert was to be that night. Kathleen had only told me that we would drive for about an hour and then take the Metro (subway/train) for another 45 minutes. I should have known that would mean London, but didn’t really care either way.

So, upon arrival at their house, Kathleen said she supposed I would be too tired to go to the concert, considering I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours. Surprisingly, I was too wound up to be tired or sleepy, so told her I was raring to go. After a nap of about 45 minutes, I showered and dressed and we were off, leaving Clem and Doug to fend for themselves.

The car trip was interesting but uneventful, as was the subway ride. We caught the subway at the farthest stop from London, and rode for miles. I hadn't realized that it was above ground for many miles before going under the streets of London. It was surprising to me to see very young people riding it alone. At one stop, a father and son got on with their bicycles, splattered with mud, obviously in a very good mood, discussing the great outing they had had that day.

I found the whole train system very confusing once we were inside London, underground, with trains on both sides of each terminal building. Kathleen had a schedule in hand that she read from, but if she had a question, she didn’t hesitate to stop any passerby and ask for directions, and everyone seemed frendly and eager to help. We found friendly, helpful people everywhere we went in Great Britain.

We were a little early for the concert, so Kathleen showed me around the area, as much as time permitted. At one museum, there was an empty room almost as large as a football field, with a jagged crack running the entire length of the floor. People were inspecting the crack, and I wondered what had caused it and if they had never seen cracked concrete before. As it turned out, the crack had been “manufactured” for some artistic purpose, and would eventually be filled in.

I enjoyed the concert immensely, as there were a number of guest performers and two guest bands in addition to the main orchestra. The two guest bands were exact opposites, one group wearing tie and tails, and the other in western dress topped off by matted blond dreadlocks. The more casual-looking group was having such a good time, casting looks among their group that said, “I can’t believe we’re really performing with this orchestra!” Their sheer joy was contagious, and I felt especially drawn to them.

After the concert, Kathleen offered to take me to see the Parliament building in all its lighted glory, but it was almost 10:00 p.m., the crowds had thinned out, and I didn’t look forward to riding the subway back without the number of riders I felt represented safety. I was also beginning to get a bit punchy, so we went to the house.

One thing that surprised me in England was that I didn't even notice a difference in the language. In Ireland, we heard some with a rather broad brogue, but after spending so many hours in the airport in New York City, hearing so many foreign languages being spoken, English in any form sounded downright homey.

I’ll stop at this point by just saying it was a really great trip—what we both consider the trip of a lifetime, once we actually got there. We wouldn’t take anything for the experience. Everything went well until we started home and reached St. Louis, where weather caused our flight to be cancelled. We chose not to take a later flight into Tulsa, as it would have meant getting our daughter or her husband out of bed to meet our plane.

However, our luggage chose to go on to Tulsa, and by the time we finally got there the next day, we found it almost too heavy to load into the car. It apparently had been left out in the rain somewhere, sometime, and everything in the bags was soaked.

But that was a small price to pay for having had such a wonderful trip and making it home unscathed.

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At December 12, 2008 at 1:24 PM , Blogger Bill Hinds said...

Hey Pat, I'm glad you did enjoy the trip. Traveling like that can be quite a chore, as it was for you but you seemed to enjoy the total experience. I haven't made it to Europe yet and I don't know if I will. There are some places I would like to visit but don't know if we will. Thanks for the story.

At December 12, 2008 at 6:22 PM , Blogger Glen Lazalier said...


You should plan on making another trip soon. After all the bad luck you had on this trip, you are due for a trouble-free trip!

Air travel is a pain--crowded airplanes, snarled schedules, bad weather, and the like have made travel a lot less fun than it used to be.

But trains, on the other hand, are a different story, at least in those parts of the world that maintain decent railroads. I rank the German trains as the best for efficiency and schedule maintenance, the French ones as the quickest (180+ mph), the Italian ones as the most colorful, and those in the UK as the easiest ones to master.

And the undergrounds in most of the major European cities are fantastic. Of all the ones I have been on, I like the Paris underground the best.

Thanks for the blog.

At December 13, 2008 at 2:46 PM , Blogger John Inman said...

Despite the troubles along the way, you enjoyed the trip, and that's what you went for in the first place. Thanks.


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