MY TRIP TO ENGLAND (IN PICTURES) - PART 2
After only six days back in the good ole U.S. of A., I was off again to London on Saturday March 14.
March 14 would have been my mother's 74th birthday, which is an interesting coincidence. I will always associate my mother with travel. And I have very distinct memories of my parents' first trip to London, back in 1978.
The preparations lasted for what seemed like weeks. The refrigerator and kitchen cupboards were stocked with non-perishable food items, as if preparations were being made for an H-bomb attack. My grandmother temporarily moved in to our house with a suitcase that seemed big enough to carry the contents of her entire apartment. And I secretly wondered if my parents would ever come back.
Remember, I'm adopted. And adopted kids can get a bit paranoid about that sort of thing.
That week seemed to go on forever, and I certainly didn't make life easy for my grandmother. I kept overriding Nanny's orders with passive-aggressive comments like "That's not what Mommy would do" or "Mommy wouldn't like that."
For example: "Mommy wouldn't like it if you ate all the Friendly's Butter Pecan ice cream." It was true, but not necessarily gracious. Yes, I was 10. But still.
I'm sure my grandmother couldn't wait for the whole thing to be over with, and neither could I. I found the whole trip to be rather traumatic, and I didn't even leave the house. I think that's, at least in part, why I have always dreaded international travel. That seed was planted in me when I was 10 and, 30 years later, it's grown into a mighty oak.
While the first trip out of the country for my mom and dad may have been difficult for me, they had a great time. They came home with plenty of pictures, presents and a travel bug. My mother and father spent the better part of the next two decades flying all over the world -- to places I would never dream of going: India, Russia, Israel, etc.
I credit this to my mother who, like me, was an obsessive-compulsive, all-or-nothing type. Once she started something, she did it right. If she had left the vacation decision-making up to my father, they wouldn't have gone anywhere further than Lake George, New York, where my grandfather had built a hunting cabin during the Great Depression.
That stay-near-home instinct may be the only thing my father and I share in common, other than an affinity for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Humphrey Bogart movies.
My first trip to London on March 3rd was on British Airways, and it was amazing. Both flights were probably my best experience with air travel to date. Unfortunately, my second trip wasn't on BA. It was an America Airlines and, well, what's the opposite of best?
The joy started at the American Airlines terminal JFK, where I was directed to self-service check-in area with a row of kiosks. The video screen prompted me to scan my passport, then asked me the questions normally posed by human reps: did you pack your own bags? did anyone give you something to carry? etc.
It seems to me that outsourcing international flight check-in to R2-D2 may not be the best way for the airlines to save money. I've got a hunch that international terrorists will have no problem fibbing to a video screen. How about we eliminate face-to-face contact for domestic travel first, and see how that goes?
One thing that I loved about my British Airways flight was the food. It was good and there was plenty of it, as well as seemingly endless beverage and snack services. And free wine, too. Not that I drank any of it, but it was nice to know I could, if I wanted to.
On American, I found the situation to be exactly the opposite.
The flight began with a rushed beverage service where I was asked if I wanted the can when I ordered a Diet Coke. As If I might say, "No just fill that thimble-sized cup with ice and then add a teaspoon of room temperature soda. That will be plenty for me."
Next came the meal service. There was a certain elegance to the process on BA, the illusion that I was actually ordering dinner in a flying restaurant. On AA, the flight attendants just trundled their cart down the aisle, banging everyone in the elbows, yelling "chicken or pasta! chicken or pasta!" And then they would throw it at you, like a newsboy. I chose the chicken and it wasn't anything to cluck about.
And that was it. We were on a six-plus-hour flight, but no more food or drinks were offered until we were an hour from landing. But the most memorable experience on the flight was drink-related, and it happened early on.
A woman in the row in front of me ordered a small bottle of wine, paid for it and then spilled it all over herself. She wasn't drunk or anything -- at least I don't think so, but I didn't breathalyze her. Rather, she blamed the tray table, which was anything but level as the plane ascended to cruising altitude. I noticed the same thing, and instead chose to hold my cup in my hand, just to be safe.
The woman called her situation to the attention of a disinterested male flight attendant with frosted tips in his hair. He sort of glared at her, rolled his eyes and then made that chah sound that your teenager makes when you try to walk next to him or her in a public place.
The woman bristled at his customer-comes-last attitude and shot back, "At least comp me another bottle of wine."
"I don't think so," spat the flight attendant, in full dudgeon. "No. I'm afraid that's not going to possible."
"Excuse me?" said the incredulous passenger, who then took the bait and got into a minor argument with this chubby, bloated, miserable, 40-something, failed actor/singer/model/hairdresser/whatever.
"Ma'am, ma'am, ma'am," he interrupted, with much finger pointing and Ricki Lake-style head-bobbing. "If this continues, I'm going to tell the captain. And then we'll just see what he has to say about it."
And that's where it ended. The woman was not stupid enough to get on the wrong side of a petty idiot with the power to ruin her life. All that guy would have to do is claim that a passenger on an International flight was threatening him and causing a disruption, and the woman would be sent to Gitmo faster than you can say "Donald Rumsfeld likes little boys."
I was sitting there, a row a way, and trying my best to hold my tongue and not to interfere. But when did good customer service get replaced with infantile threatening and intimidation? And why is that okay? Nothing quells dissent like vague threats from the otherwise-powerless and self-hating.
You know that hacky song Proud to be an American that idiots like Sarah Palin play at all their rallies? At that moment I felt just the opposite which, come to think of it, is often how I have felt recently.
The plane landed at Heathrow at around 6 AM and, after clearing immigration and customs I decided to take the Underground to my hotel. A cab would have cost 70 pounds (sorry - I don't know how to make the little squiggly pound symbol on my computer) but the subway was only 4 pounds. Even though I would be reimbursed by my job, I still feel the need to reign in expenses in these troubled times. I'd rather be known as the guy who tried to save money and got lost on the Underground, than the guy who spent $110 on a cab he didn't really need to take.
Plus, taking the subway meant I would end up at Paddington Station, which has been a dream of mine ever since I was a young reader of the series of Paddington books by Michael Bond.
I had every one of the Paddington series of books, as well as Christmas ornaments and stuffed animals, including one called Paddington Bear's Aunt Lucy. My older cousin John referred to that one as "Billy's doll with a dress" which is exactly what it was. Perhaps not the best thing for a straight 12 year-old boy to ask for for Christmas. Whatevs.
After wandering aimlessly for awhile around the outskirts of Hyde Park, someone finally directed me to my hotel - the historic Royal Lancaster.
People are always amazed at the fancy hotels I get to stay in when I travel. But you have to understand one thing. When I am working on the production of a meeting, I barely see my room. On this job I never got more than 4 hours sleep each night. One night I got only ninety minutes. Having a nice room is meaningless, if you never see it.
I'm not complaining. I am well-compensated for those long hours and I get to go to interesting places, even though I rarely have time to explore them. In this case, I had time only to cross the street to get tea from a small cafe and various other supplies from a little corner shop, where I would play with the 7-month-old daughter of the Middle Eastern woman who worked there.
After we finished the meeting, the executive producer took all of us out to dinner at Tom's Kitchen in the Chelsea section of London.
I had the best fish & chips I've ever eaten, with malt vinegar all over everything (including my new shirt).
Friday morning was my first and only chance to go sight-seeing. By the time I ate breakfast, packed and checked out of the hotel I had exactly 90 minutes before I had to leave for the airport to catch my plane home. So I pulled out my camera and walked over to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.
The Serpentine River is actually a man-made lake, but it certainly looked like the real thing on that hazy morning.
The bridge that crosses the Serpentine is the dividing line between Hyde park and Kengington Gardens, as well as a popular place for joggers. And I thought everybody who lived in London smoked, drank and ate sausage for breakfast seven days a week.
As I walked along the "lake" I came upon the Peter Pan statue, which was commissioned by author JM Barrie and sculpted by Sir George Frampton in 1912. Another family connection for me: my father used to read a Disnified version of Peter Pan to me every night before I went to bed. I have distinct memories of certain words from that story, like hornswaggle.
Next came the Serpentine Gallery, which was built in 1970. From a distance it looked to me like the house on To The Manor Born, one of the many British sit-coms I watched growing up.
After a bit of a walk I came upon the Albert Memorial, commisioned in 1862 by Queen Victoria for her dearly departed royal consort Prince Albert. It opened in 1872 and is over 176 feet tall.
Across the road is the Royal Albert Hall, which opened in 1871.
By this point it was almost time to leave, so I quickly walked back across the Park to my hotel. On the way I encountered a bronze cast of a sculpture by G.F. Watts called Physical Energy. The plaque below it said it was "a symbol of that restless physical impulse to seek the still unachieved."
I can definitely relate to that.
I got back to the hotel and shared a cab to the airport with one of my co-workers. And the best part about that was she paid.
Hopefully I'll get to go back again some time -- with a little less stress.