As we gained altitude we went north a bit, then took a right just south of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Then out over Connecticut, Rhode Island, then Cape Cod, then south of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and then out over the open ocean…. The plane had one of those screens that show where the plane is the entire time. I love those things. I kept my screen on it the entire time. It is much better than attempting to hold my handheld GPS up to the window for the entire flight, which I had done previously on a few flights.
In the mean time, I finished the book I had started a few days earlier (I, Robot by Asimov) and began a new one. “Providence” by Will Campbell. This is significant because this book has a connection to me. It is the history of one square mile in Mississippi from around 1800 onward. But it just so happens that my Grandfather plays a significant part of that history in the earlier part of the 20th Century (almost said “This Century”, woops…). So there are a lot of mentions of my Grandfather, my Grandmother, and my father as a child. I only just started the book on the flight, but it is absolutely fascinating to me. Filling in bits of family lore in a way I had not heard before.
But soon I decided to switch to watching a movie. Not whatever they were showing on the plane, but a DVD I had brought with me. I am slowly working my way up the AFI Top 100 movies list starting at 100 and working my way up. It was time for “The French Connection”. So I sat and watched it on my laptop. It was a fine movie I suppose, but didn’t really catch my attention the way some others on that list have.
After the movie I switched to email. I had been way behind on email back home. Now, since I was not actually connected to the net, I had the opportunity to answer lots of email from my inbox, but without the opportunity for anybody to actually fill my mailbox back up again! Of course, my outgoing messages would not actually leave my laptop until I can get it hooked up to the Internet again, and who knows when that will be. Quite possibly not until I return home. But that is quite OK.
As the plane started the final approach to London and they gave out breakfast, I realized that I had not slept at all. Of course, it was only just getting to be around the time I would have gone to sleep if I were at home. But it was morning in London. Woops. It was going to be a very long day…
On the final approach I also immediately noticed that the land was immediately and obviously different than what you see in my part of the world. The biggest immediate impression was curves. Everything was curvy, with an odd patchwork of lines and hedges marking off fields of different sizes and shapes. But it was all very organic and natural looking. Flying over the US (at least the parts I’ve flown over recently), everything is at right angles; there are big squares and rectangles. Things look very artificial and manmade… here things seemed to match the contours of the land much better. And everything was green, very green.
Gatwick itself was fairly straightforward. Get off the plane. Go to passport control. It only takes a minute. Go change some dollars to pounds. Go grab my bag. (It showed up mere seconds after I did.) Then I went through customs… which simply involved walking through the “Nothing to declare” isle, no line, no delay, no nothing.
After that I was walking around the airport, with a backpack and a suitcase. I had brought my “medium” suitcase, but it was still pretty big, awkward, and heavy. And I started noticing something about the UK, which further observation has confirmed. Unlike the US, there is no law requiring accessibility for the disabled. Or at least it appears that way. Elevators or lifts are hard to find, ramps are nowhere near as prevalent as they should be, etc. And here I was dragging this big suitcase along. At least it was a rolling suitcase. If it hadn’t been, I would have really hated life. As it was, I kept swearing that next time I would have to figure out some way to go with the “small” suitcase. Medium was still too big.
I then had to figure out how to get from Gatwick to Aylesbury. My rough plan had been to first get into Central London, where I knew there was a train to Aylesbury from Mayleborne station. So off I go. I find the train station, but have no idea which train I should be taking, what stop I should be getting off on, etc. After much back and forth, I decide on going to Victoria Station. I get my ticket, and eventually find the right platform and wait for the next train. I was off on my adventure!
So, the train shows up. The doors open. I get in. But unlike the trains I am used to, the doors entered directly in between two rows of seats. Every door did. There was no isle worth speaking of. The space between seats was barely passable. And here I was with my huge suitcase, which pretty much filled the aisle. Well, the suitcase seemed huger and huger. It was a “medium” as I have mentioned, but there was no space here. There was a sort of overhead rack available, but the suitcase seemed too big and too heavy for that. So there I was. There were just a couple people on the train. Not too crowded. About an hour ride. I would be fine.
Then at about the second or third stop, I had a horrible revelation. It was rush hour. I was on a commuter train. It may have started out with just a few people. But they were piling on. It would soon be standing room only. And it wasn’t like there was much room to begin with. And with my big suitcase thing, I was blocking an entrance, and taking up two whole seats instead of just one. I was right in the way of everything, and feeling very self-conscious. So I tried to just shrink away, and also not open my mouth, so I wouldn’t be even more obvious due to my accent. And indeed, I got a few dirty looks. But hey, if they would just make the train a little bit BIGGER, with some space between the aisles… or even just rearrange the seats in a way that made some sense, then there wouldn’t be a problem? Right?
The scenery passing by gave me my second impression of Britain… along with the natural organic contours from the air, what I now got was an impression of age, and things being lived in. Back home things are very neat and new. And again, in very orderly structured patterns with lots of right angles. Here as I was passing most of the buildings reminded me of comfortable worn in boots. There were signs everywhere that these were not new; vines on the building, patches on the roofs, things in the yards… and the buildings themselves seemed to be at all sorts of odd angles to each other, with narrow lanes between them. And there were the gardens. It seemed every house had a back garden that people had obviously spent a large amount of time working on. You don’t see that much back home; usually just grass, maybe a couple flowers. Definitely not sculpted gardens.
So I get out at London’s Victoria Station. I am tired, I am dragging bags, and it is still the middle of rush hour. There are surging crowds pushing every which way. They all know exactly where they are going. I have not the slightest idea. So I just start following the crowd. First up and out of the platform and into the big main area of the station. There are people going every which way. All seemingly in a big hurry. I try to find a map to figure out which way I should go next. But the crowds were just a little much.
So I decided it would be a good time to take a break for breakfast. I real breakfast, not like what they gave on the plane. So I start wandering looking for food. I spend around half an hour just wandering around the couple blocks near the station. Once I got out of the station it actually hit me that I was in fact in London. There were the double decker red busses, and that entire sort of thing. Yup. I was here.
As I was exhausting myself going in circles around the station, and rejecting place after place to eat that was just a tad too familiar… McDonalds: No. Starbucks: No. Etc. I didn’t come all this way to go to McDonalds! So, eventually I saw a nice little place with a name I didn’t recognize, and sat down. I was just about ready to collapse on the spot, but it wasn’t time for that yet. So I ordered an omelet and pulled out my book to read a bit.
I also tried to spy on the table next to me. What was the proper procedure for paying here? Pay at the table? Pay at the front? What about tipping? What was the normal percentage? 15% like home? Something different? I did not receive any enlightenment. I paid at the table and left just over 15%. I hope that was good.
Then I finally braved the London Underground. I found the right entrance, figured out how to get a ticket, and then guessed at which was probably the right train to take and headed down. At the platform I was surrounded by a crowd of Harry Potters on some sort of school field trip. It was not as harried as it had been an hour earlier, but it was still quite busy. I did manage to get a seat on the train though, which was a very good thing.
There was not a stop on this line of the Underground directly at the train station I wanted to go to for the Aylesbury train. And I did not want to figure out the whole changing trains thing. So instead I got out at the closest stop and started to walk over ground. I knew I just needed to go a couple of blocks North. Of course, I had no idea which way was North. A couple of false starts, but I eventually headed the correct direction and found the train station. I was able to buy my ticket at an automated machine. The next train was in just a couple of minutes. I go through the turnstile, get on the train, and immediately collapse into a seat.
Now, this was more like it. Unlike the ThamesLink train, this one had lots of room. There were nice cushy seats. It seemed like a new train, not like one that seemed 40 years old. It was comfortable. As we pulled out of the station and started heading north, the scenery rapidly became rural. Instead of passing by the working class neighborhoods on the first train of the day, we were passing some obviously wealthy areas; large estates with big mansions and lots and lots of land, lush green grass, large old trees, fields with sheep and horses, the works. Once again I noticed the incredibly lush vividly green grass everywhere. It was beautiful. I fell asleep.
I woke slightly before the train pulled into Aylesbury. I got out and there I was. Aylesbury. A town I had picked randomly in the first days of January. It was a real place, and I was here. Aylesbury.
Of course, I was not at the actual random point. Finding that spot would have to wait a little bit. For now my goal was to get to the bed and breakfast I had made reservations for, a place called Spindleberries. I had a little map the proprietors had sent me. I vaguely knew that it was to the east of town off the A41. I vaguely knew that the train station was in town. That was about all I knew. So I left the station. The most prominent thing I saw right away was a Safeway. But the town itself was very nice and neat and clean… newish brick buildings in a sort of shopping area. The center of town was up ahead, but for the moment I wasn’t going there. I curved around to the right following the signs for the A41. It was lightly raining. I was still dragging around my backpack and suitcase. I was very tired, despite the 15 minutes or so I had probably slept on the train. I was also hot and sweaty and getting quite bedraggled. But I trudged onward. I went round the loop that bypassed the center of town on the south, past a movie theatre, around a roundabout, and onto the A41. From the center of town the B&B was supposedly just over a mile. It seemed longer than that to me, but that was probably just because I was so tired by that point. The fact that it was raining also probably didn’t help.
Aylesbury seemed like an absolutely great place to live. Nice clean shopping in the center, then as I walked out the A41, lots of really nice looking houses. The sidewalk was close enough to the A41, which is a fairly busy road, to make me think about the traffic, but it was still a nice walk. I kept thinking, “This would be a great place to live, maybe I should move here.” Finally, I saw it on my left, down a little path away from the main road. Spindleberries.
I rang the bell and after a few seconds the door opened and my host greeted me. “Ah, you made it!” He was a retired gentleman, Mr. Derek Mason, who had made his career at Kodak. Now he and his wife do the bed and breakfast thing. He showed me upstairs to my room and showed me the bathroom and other amenities. By this point I was feeling particularly dirty and scummy, and desperately in need of a shower and clean clothes. So I immediately take care of those things. I get all dressed up nice again as if I were going to go out again immediately. But then I realize that it is only early afternoon, not even close to time for dinner yet, and I am exhausted. So after a couple minutes of additional conversation with my host, I retire to my room to rest up a bit.
I didn’t go right to sleep though. I decided to unpack. As I unpacked I noticed that to my surprise there was a TV in the room. Great! I turn it on. Guess what is on TV? BBC News? Nah… Montel. Montel was just finishing up. Then what comes on next? News? No… Oprah. I turn off the TV and finish unpacking.
I start flipping amongst the four available channels again for a few minutes. I think I even found some news. But I was asleep within minutes. I was absolutely wiped out.
I had set an alarm for myself though; I wanted to get some dinner at an appropriate time to try to get onto a better local schedule. When my alarm went off I fought it. I wanted to sleep more. But I dragged myself out of bed. There had been a place I passed on my walk to Spindleberries that seemed like a nice place to go for a bite. The Plough Beefeater. So I was going to walk back there. Mr. Mason stopped me on my way out and pointed out that it was now raining hard. Not just a little like when I had arrived. He offered me a “brelly” to borrow. I thanked him, and headed out the door with the umbrella. It was more of a wind storm than an actual heavy rain, but it took careful use of the umbrella to keep dry and keep the umbrella from blowing away. But I walked the several blocks back to the Beefeater. I ordered some sort of chicken thing.
At this point I had a realization, one that I should have remembered from my one previous trip to the UK, or from what people had mentioned to me. Prices are higher in the UK than they are at home. Now, they don’t LOOK higher. The prices in the restaurant were almost exactly what you would expect in an American restaurant along the order of a TGI Fridays or such. Which is about the same level of atmosphere this place was. But the prices were in pounds, not dollars! Which made it approximately 50% more expensive. Given that, the trip might end up costing me slightly more than I had thought it would. But that was OK. I had brought enough, and they take credit cards in enough places, that this should not be a problem.
I was still very tired and a bit groggy, so I just made my way through dinner in a slightly zombie-like fashion, listening in to bits and pieces of the conversations going on around me, and reading my book. I finished dinner, then trudged home to the B&B.
I gave another shot at the telly when I got back. Still not much on. There was a documentary on the history of slaves in New York City. I left that on for a while as I made myself comfortable. I got my laptop out and started to put together some of my notes from the trip. I wanted to keep a fresh account for putting up on my website when I got home. I also turned on the radio. BBC News. Finally some good news to listen to! I turned off the TV and listened to the radio.
Listening to news on the radio almost immediately put me to sleep to the soothing lullaby of people arguing over the sending of British troops to Afghanistan and American motivations for going after Iraq.