Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Back on the Bus: Day Two, "Mind the Gap"

Denial sets in, "who put someone else's clothes in my luggage?" Why would they do that I think to myself at first, seriously contemplating how my bag is full of someone else's belongings. Then, horror, I took someone else's bag, amazing it took that long, it probably should have dawned on me at the airport. How did I take another passenger's bag? The bag was right on top of N's. Well, I guess that explains the missing name tag I mimic. By the time N emerges from the bathroom I admit maybe I was a bit careless. Eye roll. We search through the bag and there is nothing in there, not a phone number, a residence tag, not a clue whose bag this could be. By the looks of the clothes it looks like this person could be as old as the folks on our tour.

It was September 11th at home, eight years after one of our greatest tragedies, N and I were in law school together, getting to know one another, eight years later we are spending that anniversary in London about to partake on a quest for luggage. We moved into action and called downstairs and asked for "Robert" our tour guide. "Who?" is the response. "Never heard of him." Click. So much for British hospitality. We dress and need to find Robert. As I am dressing I remember an article on Common Dreams stating how security conscious the Brits are now, cameras everywhere, in the top three countries with the U.S. and Israel. I stole someone else's bag, I could be in a British prison by sundown. Then, we started to mimic Tobias on Arrested Development "Oh no, not the Bobbies." We may be delirious.

We find Robert where we left him in the corner of the Grafton Hotel waiting on tour folks to check in. We tell him: "I have someone else's bag." It fails to register with him. "Why?" "I took it at the airport." "Why, did you not see it was not your bag?" Using two negatives which felt particularly accusatory. Failing to see how this is relevant and obviously trying not to encourage criticism I ask him if he knows the number of Continental airlines? "No." Do you know the number of Heathrow airport? No. Do you have the number of Baggage claim? No. "Do you know anything?" I say to myself, just like in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. He appears baffled by us, why are we so crazed, he seems to be telling us to relax with his body language. "Why don't you wait until the lobby clears out and then ask one of the clerks to look up the number for you." We look over our shoulder, two bus loads of people entering the lobby, barely able to hear our own conversation, people streaming in and out of the hotel, N and I look at each other and realize we are alone on this. We were hoping he would have answers, he has none and we abandon him. We find an Internet connection and look up the number to Continental airlines easily and are back upstairs within ten minutes with a number in hand in need of a phone.

Again, he says "wait until the lobby clears out." Ahhh. No, I say. And I am not sure I am acting like a neurotic New Yorker or just an American with "can do spirit" but I ask a roaming clerk if there is a phone I can use. She is nice, young and attractive, especially with that British accent. She comes back and says "no there isn't." Suddenly, she is not so attractive, obnoxious with a condescending accent. But, someone sees my disappointment, the lobby beginning to clear out and says: "you can use this phone." Thankfully, I call Continental, they give me a number for Heathrow airport, central number, I call them and they give me a number for baggage claim, "now we are getting somewhere." Someone picks up and tells me to call back in ten minutes, "I don't know anything." That seems to be going around.

Robert tells me to relax, have some fun you're in London" in an unfamiliar Irish brogue. N indicates rationally 'we have a responsibility to get that bag back to the person who owns it." Robert about to respond, realized the rightness in this statement nods, "yes that is true." I declare irrationally, "I'm not going on the tour without my bag!" Robert is silent. I call the number back and am given another number to lost or stolen bags. Robert calls, realizing we aren't going away and leaves his number, telling them he is a tour guide and I have two very nice young people (both of which aren't true) who need to talk to someone about their missing luggage.

He says, "give them 45 minutes to call back. Don't worry, they will call back." I am not sure he thinks they will call back, but am positive he could use 45 minutes away from us. I realize this and say to him, "ok, we'll go for a walk and get something to eat and come back." N doesn't like this strategy I can tell, but I am already walking out the door and she has no choice. We walk outside, we are near the University College of London, Regents Park, the College of Westminster, Notting Hill Park and all we can do is roam and stew. N. is thinking "have you no sense?" And I am thinking using Robert's strategy, "relax." We roam down some nice streets and peruse nice apartments in London, suddenly we are upon a cute little cafe, Cafe Rio. I say: "I'm hungry, feel like something to eat?" "Yeah, I do."

We sit down, order some food from a nice young waitress and realize this is a bustling street in Fitzrovia, London. People of all ages, creeds, colors and religion walking down the streets. I contemplate suddenly, "I like London." It is a world class city with a world class culture, I eat my English breakfast and enjoy a great latte. Even N., with her Italian palate is happy, we discuss events with seat mates, one Brit yells out: "you idiot!" We look at him, "does he know about the luggage" I think to myself. A balding, polite looking man, as we look at him, we hear a screech of a car and a bike messenger almost hit, the cyclist keeps on without missing a beat. The Brit apologizes profusely for his outrage, "but these damn bikes" the second time we hear this criticism in a few hours.

I enjoy my latte without a care in the world and feel for the first time I am on vacation, the sun shines upon my face through the London clouds and I sit back and close my eyes, N. happy not to discuss anything at the moment. "I like this place" I say. N. reminds me we should probably get back and see about our luggage, and it finally dawns on me why she is so upset, much of her stuff is in my large bag of luggage. Though, it is obvious she is also enjoying the London streets and the sun. I say to her as we pay our bill to the nice ladies inside: "you know we are going back to the airport, right?" The anxiety is back, we may be going on a two week trip with no luggage. My luggage with the Swiss crosses could be in Switzerland. Who knows? If someone made a similar mistake (is someone really that dumb?) then we are in trouble.

We march back to Robert who has no answers, but seems thrilled with the idea he can save us some money, instead of a 50 pd. ride to the airport we can take the tube, the stop literally steps from the hotel. And we are off to the "Underground" instead of the "subway" we are reminded. I like subways, a lot. I loved living in D.C. with the Metro, living in NYC with the subway and even New Jersey with the PATH and lightrail. When we travelled to Paris the Metro was a highlight, though the train operators were mostly on strike, I loved jumping on and off. The tube is much like the Metro in Paris, smaller and efficient and since it took us and hour and a half to get from the airport to the hotel, it obviously goes far and wide in the London city limits.

A friend told me before leaving, don't forget to "mind the gap" on the Tube. It is everywhere in the Underground, on the platform, in the cars and on the speakers, "mind the gap" before you depart. Only one transfer, we transfer at Leicester Square from the northern line to the Picadilly line, last stop, terminal 4 Heathrow airport. We sit down on the tube, I look around N directly in front of me, finally she smiles, more like a "what is wrong with you" smile, but at least it is a smile. We helped one another figure out the tube crossings, tried to pay with a credit card to no avail, but found a clerk ready to help, NYC this isn't, there are actually people in the booths.

The tube is a look into London's heart, the underground beating life into the city; as you sit, you hear every European language spoken and many other world languages, this is the European economic center. The tube is calmer than the subway in New York, people seem more relaxed, but no less cosmopolitan and chatter is heard easily as we make our way toward Heathrow. I hear a woman from Sardinia ask how to get to her street, a street I forget, many Londoners help, but none know. Finally, a large man tells her how to get there,excitedly, because it is his neighborhood, he seems eastern European and attempts to flirt with her, she allows it, but they go their separate ways, she a lawyer and he an art collector of some sorts. Another young woman speaks on her cell phone, she is mixed race and seems aware of her cell phone use, talks quietly as I try to hear the particulars of the conversation to no avail. We arrive at terminal 4 Heathrow and cross our fingers for a successful journey, it is nearly 5:15 PM London time and I can see N's patience waning. That bag is my savior.

I approach the first man I see, the airport empty ten hours after our arrival. He points me to a phone. "Pick it up and someone will answer." I pick it up and sure enough someone answers. "Name?" A shuffling, a pause and muffling short conversation. "Door to your right, come through." N and I hightail it to the doors and tentatively I enter, N following me. It is Customs it seems, a baggage claim monitor, "were you told to come through here?" "Yes." Ok, empty your pockets, shoes off, jacket off and go through the metal detector." She doesn't want N to come with me, but N talks her way through, much more convincing under pressure than I am. I carry the bag through with me and a large man in uniform approaches me.

"Well, that is an exact replica in'it? he says in a rough British accent. "Yes," I turn to N see, I seem to say, I am not crazy. "Do you have my bag? "Of course" he says. We breathe, in minutes we are sitting at a Starbucks at Heathrow with my Swiss crossed bag, we order a water, three hours of sleep in 36 hours and we are exhausted, relieved we have our belongings. Even a Starbucks at this point is not reviling. The man in uniform made me open the bag before we left his presence. The Tube only steps away, we board for the ride home, travelling the length of England's largest city again and return to the hotel. No pub tonight, just sleep, but first we must eat.

We wanted to go out to Brick Lane for Indian food, but not a chance we would make it. We walked around Fitzrovia and wandered around for a while and ended up at a vegetarian Indian restaurant. It was very good and cheap, if your paycheck is in Euros, but of course ours is not, we are paid in U.S. dollars, quickly becoming the toilet paper of currency. We consult two Brits next to us on our tip, nicely they explain the process, "ten percent only if the service is good. Really you should only leave a couple of Euros." We take her advice, no passing off wages from business to consumers here, not yet anyway. Though, England seems quite capitalistic. Off to bed, tomorrow breakfast is at 8 am and a tour of the city at 9. Vacation begins tomorrow.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Back on the Bus: Day One, Arriving in London

The trip began when N arrived home, she insisted she work the last day we were leaving. Ugh. "They will survive without you" I told her. This isn't exactly true since they fired all of the temps while she was gone, but it sounded like good advice, no? In this economy nothing is certain, all the more reason we needed to get out of here I thought, just for a while, leave capitalism behind and see how the social democrats live. Already, today is the one year anniversary of my "push out" of Legal Services, part of the reason we scheduled it on this day. We were already packed, waiting for Budget Limo to call, beep or whatever they do so we can be picked up and taken to Newark and flown to London.

Two hours before I placed two cold glasses in the freezer and at 3 PM they were ready. I opened my new favorite beer, Blue Point Blueberry Ale and we toasted our vacation, my 40th birthday, N's soon to be 40th birthday, our "honeymoon" and our eight years together. We were headed to the UK and Ireland, my ancestors homeland, on a tour, a risk yes, for sure, but we didn't really want to work ourselves, we wanted to be taken care of, so we found and booked a trip. "Show up" in London they said and we'll do the rest. Perfect.

The flight was non-eventful. 6:22 minutes in the air, not bad, and a good selection of all kinds of movies, from "Casablanca" to "Little Miss Sunshine." I watched them both. I can't read on a plane, hardly so I distract myself from the fact that we are travelling at 500 mph at least, 40,000 feet in the air and travailing the jet streams. Reading doesn't help. Humans versus nature, I think and both are pretty amazing. As we took off out of Newark, I saw the sun beginning to set over the horizon that seemed to stretch toward Michigan, I looked at Nicole and said that same sun will be rising in six hours over the horizon while we land in London, which when we did seemed to rise over Amsterdam. "That doesn't seem possible" she lamented.

We de-boarded the plane, and were immediately placed in a never ending line through customs. I was still excited. This was day two already. This is how the tour rolls. Day one is take off, day two is landing though, only seven hours the older. Technically, it was September 10th when we took off and September 11th when we landed, so it is hard to quibble. In customs we met a nice couple, Paul and April, older, retired, N saw the CIE tour bag and she asked them if they were there to join us. I told Nicole to leave the tour bags at home, "I won't be caught dead with them" I said. Sure enough, they were from Pennsylvania, but as April put it, "she is a Jersey girl and always will be." They were nice and we got along swimmingly, little were we to know, they would be the youngest couple on the trip, the closest in age to us. April said a couple of things about Obama, that he was trying to kill her with the death panel, but we ignored it, we were not there to talk politics. Eesh. We did agree that the banks were a bunch of money grubbing, scum bags so that was nice. So much for not speaking politics.

After Customs we grabbed our bags, N's bag one of the first down the baggage chute, mine seemingly on top of hers. No name tag, N said: "it must have fell off on the way down." "Whatever," I said, "let's go get our bus to the hotel, I need a nap." N couldn't agree more. We hopped on the bus as it was leaving Heathrow, though we were the first to sign up, they nearly left us there. Not a good start, N was none too happy, and lucky she was there to question them or we might still be there. We got on the bus, exhausted I started to feel a bit queezy, it was already 8:30 am, 3:30 am New Jersey time and I needed a bed. The driver, in his cockney accent pointed out points of interest in London, but they all appeared to be pubs, nothing eventful on the way from Heathrow to our hotel. He was jovial and we were not.

The driver, however boarded 20+ people in the bus and all of them seemingly getting off before us. Each stop occurring in downtown London, I was screaming inside, what the fuck?! I faced south as he drove and started to feel I may need a vomit bag, what to do? I undid my seatbelt so I could move a bit and it helped. Finally, mercifully we arrived at our destination, we met our tour guide in the lobby and we checked in easily enough, nearly 10:00 am now and I am barely standing up, at this point I am capable of robbery, mayhem, maybe even manslaughter if I don't get some sleep soon. "Robert" our tour guide asks me where my name tag is on my large Swedish looking bag, I brush it off and say, "it must have fell off in transit." He nods ok, tells us about a welcome drink at 6 PM and Nicole, me, April and Paul are off to our hotel rooms for a nap.

I sacked out quick, double beds, N happy so I won't snore on her. Nice. I wake up at 1 PM London time, a three hour nap and I am ready to meet the beautiful London streets. I moan, groan and say to Nicole: "we should probably rally" and be off. N wakes up pretty quick, agrees we should see London. She stumbles over me into the bathroom, a pretty nice hotel in downtown London, next to some beautiful pubs. I am really excited to see one of the world capitals, off for some pub food maybe, a pint. I slump my huge bag on a luggage table, the swedish crosses looking at me. I open it, still groggy from the plane, the long morning and the nap, I search for my stuff, but only find unfamiliar baggage. "Sweetie," I say, "where's my stuff?"