Monday, June 28, 2010

The outbound leg

There is probably no way to fly to England that isn't at least a little awful. First, there's the unavoidable length of the trip. You have all the overhead of any air travel: a long ride to the airport, a long wait to board, a connecting flight, a layover, and the main flight. Then there's the extra stuff at the England end, including a trip through customs, a wait for a train, a train ride, and the walk from there since we're not hiring a car. But biggest is the fact that that main flight is seven solid hours in a single airplane seat.

Our flight was probably not a particularly bad one. There were no extremely long layovers, no overbooking, no delays, no technical problems with the plane, and only a tiny bit of turbulence. However, there was enough noise (mostly from a f kids) and enough excessive heat in the cabin (added to the dry air) to make it impossible to get even a little sleep, not in such a tiny, cramped space with no legroom and no hiproom. So you can't help arriving exhausted and sore.

And the first thing you face when you arrive is five hours of jet lag adding to the already considerable length of the trip. The result is that you're just touching down in England in time to find a whole new day has snuck up on you. Perhaps in first class you can have enough room and enough comfort to actually get some sleep, in which case, the timing would work in your favor, allowing you to "change phase the easy way" and adjust right over that jet lag. I don't know if first class really is spacious enough to allow for sleep. Coach certainly isn't.

In my case, it was far, far worse because my left knee is still suffering the ill effects of my bike accident from March. The bubble of blood in it makes it very sensitive to being jarred, but worse, holding it still for very long makes it stiffen. By the time we arrived, bending it back was extremely painful, and merely walking on it sometimes felt like it was going to give way. There's nothing like a chronic pain to really season the grumpiness of no sleep and general discomfort.

At least a flight of this length comes with something I haven't seen in years: meals on the plane. If these were any indication, airplane food has not improved in the interval; quite the contrary. They were on a par with the cheaper (but perhaps not the cheapest) of freezer aisle TV dinners. Worse yet, we'd arranged diabetic meals for Suri, but it turns out their idea of a diabetic meal is probably the worst thing for a diabetic -- dinner was mostly made of rice, one of the carbs with the highest impact on blood sugar, for instance. Perhaps the worst part was that it took them more than an hour to collect the trays, making for very uncomfortable waiting with a stack of trash and trays and nowhere to put it. They were also quite skimpy with the beverages; on the whole seven hours I got about ten total ounces of fluid, so by time we arrived I was totally dried out.

Apparently we chose a bad moment to arrive because the queues at Customs were hundreds of people deep and it took us about an hour to get through. When we finally reached the head of the queue, we breezed through, and the customs officer was friendly, and kinda cute. But the last thing I or my knee needed was an hour standing, lugging my carry-on, having nothing to drink. By time it was done we didn't feel we had time to get something to eat before the train, which it turns out was a bad decision since we would go many hours before we got another chance.

The train ride itself was fairly pleasant, despite the train station being a little badly organized without clear instructions and with their train timetables jumbled up and unclear. The chairs were a hundred times better than the plane, but still not too great; there wasn't anywhere near enough legroom, so I found myself laying my head on the table trying to pass out, only to have to keep pulling my leg in from the aisle as people passed, and that act was tremendously painful. In all the train would have been no big deal, even nice, had it not come on the end of almost exactly 24 hours of exhausting, pain-inducing travel.

In the hurry to get our luggage out at arrival, combined with the too-small, too-high luggage racks, I managed to get one of my suitcase's four wheels caught on the rack, then it came down too fast and snapped clean off. This suitcase is brand new and glides like a dream over even difficult terrain due to having four wheels all of which pivot in any direction, making the considerable weight in it no burden at all. Break one of those wheels, though, and the virtue turns fast into a vice as it keeps trying to lurch onto the wounded corner. Try dragging that on cobbled, uneven roads with a wounded knee and your mood's sure to turn from bad to worse fast. I hope this can be repaired on warranty, but even if so, it won't be until we're home, and that's too late to help.

Adding to a general feeling that mere things were conspiring against me was the fact that my phone refused to connect to, and as of now still refuses to connect to, any of the many wireless networks it can see, and there's no reason given, no error message, no idea how to fix it. Siobhan's phone is an identical model with identical software, and every relevant setting is set precisely the same; hers roams instantly and automatically, and mine simply will not connect. This turned out to be a real impediment since I hadn't printed out the many maps and addresses we needed, expecting to easily be able to view them using things like Google Maps and Next2Me, neither of which was loaded onto Siobhan's phone (and loading them would cost us a fortune in roaming data charges). So we suddenly found ourselves unable to easily find some of the key spots we needed to go, such as the shop to buy Internet dongles. I hope I can find a fix since Siobhan and I have no way to keep in touch if we get separated now.

Another problem was that, arriving on a Sunday, we had most of our options for converting currency made unavailable, leaving us only those with absurdly high rates. We didn't take advantage of those, and thus found ourselves scrambling without a way to pay for almost anything. Most stores do take our credit cards, but you have to ask first, since some shops and most automated kiosks and ATMs don't (all cards in the UK and most of Europe use a 'chip and pin' system that the US refuses to adopt), and it's a hassle, and you can't come away with any cash to use for those places where credit cards are not a viable option. At one point we had to resort to gathering piles of loose change from the flat just in hopes of buying a little soda to quench that awful thirst I still had from the plane (remember the plane?).

Dragging my injured suitcase and heavy carry-on (total weight probably 80 pounds) up a flight of stairs on my injured knee while sore, exhausted, and parched was really the icing on the awfulness cake, and I didn't actually get to look at the flat or listen to the instructions of the housekeeper who met us due to being so wracked with pain and so exhausted I couldn't dare risk snapping at her (and she was entirely sweet and nice and wholly undeserving -- she even offered to lend us 20 quid until we could get some cash!). Pity, though, since the flat was actually the first really nice thing, as it's charming, comfortable, well-appointed, and in a very nice location with a lovely view on the river and the bustling part of downtown. (Though that also means it has a constant infusion of the noise of bar-hopping crowds across the river, made all the noisier by the World Cup celebrations. But that bothers Siobhan, not so much me.)

After a couple of hours of recovery including a very nice shower, Siobhan and I finally felt up to the challenge of going back out and dealing with the problems of no currency, no food, no Internet, no phone, and no idea where anything was. That went mostly well; we paid too much for some fairly good Italian food, too much for some supplies at a convenience supermarket (it has only four aisles, yet jars of goose fat are important enough to merit some of its cooler aisle space), and had no luck trying out various ATMs, but we did find everything fairly easy to walk to and to find.

The Internet dongles, however, proved (and as of this writing are still proving) a series of challenges. We found a shop that sold them, and was staffed with friendly, helpful people (albeit people very eager to cheer on World Cup players quite loudly). We bought a pair of dongles in no time and were off. Trying them out, however, ran into three problems. First, the wifi access is spotty at best and unreliable; I've yet to hold down a real connection with it anywhere I've gone. Second, just in the last week or so, they've removed the weekly plan that was ideal for us; buying daily plans would cost a fair bit more.

Back at the shop, they offered to make up to us for most of it by refuding £10 of our purchase price, leaving the increase in cost only £4, and even gave us the £10 in cash (very handy considering the trouble we were having getting any). But it still took us the better part of an hour to sign up for the daily plan, in part because their payment web site is completely hosed. Until you've paid you can't visit any site but the one on which you do payment. However, paying via a Visa forces them to route your web browser through the Verified By Visa page, which of course they won't let you visit, so you get to the very last step in the payment and get stuck with a "page won't load" error every time. Bad design and worse testing. Again, the friendly, helpful shop folk found us a workaround and we finally got signed up, in tiem to find the third problem: Siobhan's netbook seems to be taking lessons from my phone on being inexplicably difficult. Firefox keeps crashing her system, the netbook bogs down at any provocation, and she's having trouble with her dongle not recognizing the cellular network leaving her connection dead in the water since Wifi signals at the flat are way too weak to hold a connection down).

Despite all these problems, our minimal exposure to York has been fairly pleasant. The people are uniformly friendly, the town is welcoming, and if you appreciate girl-watching (even if only at the lizard brain), York seems amazingly well provisioned with attractive young women, combined with an apparent cultural predisposition or fashion inclination towards wearing clothes that show off their assets. The fashion also favors little or no makeup, lots of long hair, and a lot more red (excuse me, 'ginger') hair than I'm used to. Add that to a very pedestrian-heavy city, and who needs museums?

One final observation: one of the oddest things I saw in town was, puttering through an intersection like it was the most ordinary way to pop down the chemist for the weekend, a brand new, entirely too sexy, lime-green Lamborghini, in perfect shape and looking like it just came out of a movie set and was on its way to an auto race. And no one seemed to consider this worth a second glance. The rest of the cars we saw were the usual mix of clunkers and boringly functional cars, yet everyone was totally cavalier about this ultra-high-end sports car inching along through pedestrian-heavy traffic.

After a few hours of rest and recovery I'm feeling a lot better and hoping that tomorrow morning is a nice fresh start. I'd hate to make this trip when I had to do anything on that first day, though. Anyone who flies from the US to the UK for business purposes and can't spare a day must have it incredibly hard being fresh and presentable that first day. I couldn't do it.

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