Wednesday, August 26, 2009

This is my London layover

Photo by Penguin Scott 2005

Oct 14, 2008

Part One

It’s 330pm in London. I awoke after a 4hour nap. I ate a sandwich, cookies and drank some milk. I read the USA Today, even though it was several days old. It was still news to me. Now I sit in my tiny name-brand hotel room looking out the window. I’ve always heard how small rooms are in Japan, but I’ve never had a room in Japan as small as this in London.

Gray clouds float by, as usual for this town it seems. They float by not entirely lazily, however. Like the people on the sidewalks below them, they seem to have their agendas and so move at an appropriate pace for having such.

My view is of a mostly residential area. While no skyscrapers by any means, a few multi-storied buildings are also in view. But mostly apartment buildings are what I see from my 18th floor hotel room.

They are constructed of brick and look as if they’ve been here for quite some time. The bricks are dark and look wet, like it’s been raining. But the streets are dry and I see no puddles on roofs or sidewalks. Their roofs are littered with small and medium disks used to gather satellite images for the TVs inside.

Not many have balconies. Most that I can see are vacant. Others store chairs or display plant life. Quite a few, again…satellite dishes. Some people are using their balconies to hang laundry to dry.

Along the street below is a wide sidewalk. It’s not over run with people, but looks about on par for a Tuesday afternoon. Along the sidewalk and under the apartments are stores- most of which have signs in both English and Arabic as a clear indication of the part of town I’m in. There is a post office, a fabric store, an electronics store, a few salons a fish market, KFC and a Dominos Pizza.

Red double-decker busses dominate the street. It reminds of seeing taxi cabs in Manhattan. The Brits love their small cars; Citroens, Smart Cars and Mini Coopers are numerous. Oh, and motor bikes; most with the little trunks sitting high just behind their driver, all of whom wear full helmets, unlike their counterparts in America who seem to go for style and comfort over safety.

The clouds move from left to right. Right now they are not so much clouds as one large, gray mass. And here I sit, in London, nothing to do, no plans, done it all before, it seems. Here I sit- watching.

Part Two

The sharp woman who was the purser on my flight from San Francisco had announced a happy hour in her room to begin at 4pm. She announced her room to us upon check-in and that she was going to provide the beer. I like happy hours. I like socializing. I like beer and I had no other plans. London is expensive and I am cheap. OK, maybe not cheap, so let’s stick with thrifty. At ten minutes to 4 I started getting dressed to head out, then realized I was about to make a social faux pas by showing up on time. I sat down and left my room at 415.

I walked into Cindy’s room and was offered a beer from the bathroom sink, full of ice and beer. Two pilots, the captain and the first officer and one flight attendant were already in the room.

Cindy had a better view of London than I had. From her room on the 15th floor, I could see the London Eye (Europe’s largest Ferris wheel), the ‘Gherkin’ building (unofficially named for its similar shape to a pickle) and the tower of Big Ben (one can’t actually ‘see’ Big Ben, as that is the name of the bell within the tower and not the tower itself; a bit of knowledge I picked up on a previous trip). I took a seat near the window knowing that during the lulls of conversation that tend to come with a smaller group, that I could simply turn to take in the views for a moment or two.

However, over the next 90 minutes or so, I found the conversations appealing and the people behind them charming. The room was filled with much laughter and there were numerous times I thought hotel security surely would come knocking any minute. They never did. And even though the company was so engaging, I did tend to turn from time to time to look at the view behind me. And every time I did so, a few others followed my lead as if to see what it was, exactly, that I was looking at, maybe not fully aware that it was merely the whole view in general that attracted me.

By 7 we were all pretty hungry and started to discuss dinner options. Indian food had been thrown out as a possibility and I know from past trips to London that the Indian food here is pretty darned good. Someone threw out fish and Elbert, the flight attendant who had worked in business class with me, suggested a place a few blocks away that he likes to go to for chicken. His suggestion beat out the others, mostly on the construct that we could bring it back to the room to continue drinking. This seemed popular with the pilots, as well as with Cindy, who wanted to make sure she didn’t have leftover beer to deal with. After all, this was a lightly attended happy hour; lighter than most.

Upon exiting the hotel I found myself not as sure of my footing as normal. Cindy had done a good job of passing out beer up in the room. And the weather had turned slightly more foul than before, as the air was now full of a wet mist, which helped us step up our pace a bit.

The chicken place was visible from my room, only I had not noticed it. One big step up into a small restaurant with 4 or 5 small tables, a wall filled with a large menu board and photos of various dishes and a long food table, under the glass of which were dishes mostly of middle eastern and Indian flair. Hummus, kibbeh, lamb, kebabs, fried pies with curries and vegetables, all kept warm under warming lamps and over water tables. In back, along the wall were 2 rotisseries, one with lamb and one with chicken for gyros. The whole place was eerily lit by florescent light.

Elbert ordered for us, a small, whole chicken for each of us. It came with fries and the guys preparing the food for us included a green salad, placed in a small plastic bag. I’d never had salad given to me in a bag!

The prices were great, I’m sure I’ll be back on future trips, knowing how expensive it is in London. (On the bus ride to the hotel, I noted a KFC with a sign for a chicken sandwich that was 4 pounds and a half, which would convert to about eight US dollars.)

We dined in the hotel lobby where, as we finished eating, I noticed a sign stating outside food was not allowed to be consumed. Sure enough, 2 minutes later a manager asked us to leave. Perfect timing! We gathered our trash and resumed as before in the room on the 15th floor and continued to enjoy one another’s company. And beer.

On our food outing we ran into 2 other flight attendants from our flight and they had now joined us, adding new life and fodder for conversing. Being that Cindy’s room, albeit with the better view, was of the same size as mine, it was fun being a bit cramped. Three sat on the bed, two on the floor, the captain in the chair next to the desk and I sat on a make-shift seat of the suitcase stand with pillows so I wouldn’t fall through the straps.

At 1030 we dispersed. Most of my flying partners had earlier flights than I had and they wanted to get to sleep. Mine wasn’t until 4pm the next day, so my plan was to stay up a bit longer and sleep in.

Part Three

The plan was to stay up until 2am, sleep until 10, check out and catch my ride to the airport. It failed at 630am when I awoke to a door slamming in the hallway. More doors followed and continued for the rest of the morning. I couldn’t fall asleep again, as much as I wanted to and as tired as I was. I turned on the TV and hoped maybe it would lull me back to sleep. I gave up at 8 and started to pack and take a look outside. The weather was the same as when I went to bed, dreary. People now walked under the safety of their umbrellas. Those without sort of jogged hurriedly along.

The night before, I’d gone to a local grocery and bought scones and clotted cream. It’s just not a London trip without scones and clotted cream. I’m quite happy they don’t have these delicacies in the states as I would have to eat them constantly. Oh, so creamy, and with a bit of strawberry jam…decadence to be sure!

I ate my breakfast and watched the news, taking note that the Brits seemed much attuned to the presidential elections in the US. Only two other news items garnered more attention; the economic conditions and a meeting about them taking place in Brussels, and the split of Guy Ritchie from Madonna.

When the time finally came to head downstairs, I began feeling quite tired and relished the thought of a nap on the hour-long ride back to Heathrow Airport. But I knew that would be hard for me. I enjoy looking out the windows too much. I never sleep on the bus rides to and from the airport, even after the long 15-hour flight to Sydney. I don’t travel all that way to just sleep on the bus and not take in the local culture, of which there is a lot to take in on a journey to and from the airport.

A van arrived. I was on my own, as the other girl going back with me was at another hotel. The driver informed me the flight was an hour delayed. I was lucky that they allowed me to go back to my room. I got a 20 minute nap in, which did a world of good.

When I again attempted to depart my hotel I was happy to know there were 2 other flight attendants with me. The LHR airport is very confusing and my company’s offices were now in a new area. So I had absolutely no idea where to go once I arrived. To this day I still have none.

The LHR airport is like entering a twilight zone. It went something like this.

Because I had liquids over the allowed limit and England is one of the few places in the world where flight attendants can’t take them through security, I had to check one of my bags. Thank goodness the other girl I was with did so as well. Again, I had no idea where to go next.

We checked our bags at the front podium and went around the corner. It took a few tries for her to find the hidden door, go left and then down the ramp, go right, across the hall, down a corridor, up a ramp, pass another security check point. Then take a right, go down a bit and a left. We entered a room now for security screening. Put the bags on the conveyer, pass the magnometer, turn right, then left, down a hall and through some doors. Never were there windows or signs directing us where to go. God pity those who know not the way!

We were now in a huge terminal full of shops and seats and tons of people. We now had to go from one end of this large room to the other. I was hungry, but not a one of these shops sold food. Had I wanted cologne, tobacco, alcohol, sunglasses, watches or chocolate, I would have been in paradise. I wanted a hamburger. There must be a separate maze to take one to the food.

Turn right, down another hall, take a moving sidewalk, then another, another left and here, on the left, were our offices. Not knowing the code to get in we knocked. I looked through the window and the woman behind the desk about 10 yards back held up a sign with large red numbers. It was the code to get in the door. I was glad no one was behind us to now know the code. I punched it in and our journey through London’s Heathrow twilight zone Airport was done.

If you offered me $10,000 to do it again on my own, I don’t know that I could.

The London based crew I was about to fly home with were more senior and older than the crew I had flown in with 2 days before (by senior, I mean company seniority). But they were nice and the new purser led a thorough briefing. After the briefing, I mentioned that I’d not eaten since 8am and was hungry. The flight was now an additional hour behind. It was almost 6. We were told there was a sandwich shop at the gate. I went with Denise, who flew in with me and who had joined the last of our happy hour the night before.

The walk to the gate was short. We showed our ID to another security person and were allowed into the gate area. I finally settled on an egg sandwich for just over 2 pounds, or about $4. Denise told me it would need mayo, as she had that the last time she was in London. I asked the girl at the register for some mayo and was told, “Oh, we don’t do that here.” It was almost like I’d asked for a dance, the way she said it. No mayonnaise, no sandwich. I put it back.

In my hunger I now got upset with London. Silly little London, with their small cars and their driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. It’s dreary, crowded, small, old; the airport is a cluster fuck, they pronounce their military as ‘millitree’, can’t pronounce aluminum correctly, put things in the boot of their car and now they don’t have mayo for a freakin’ egg sandwich! I have to check my bags because I carry water and more than 3 ounces of other various gels and liquids that the US allows me to carry. And when I arrive home I will have to wait 10 minutes for my bag to arrive with the other passenger’s.

I don’t like London layovers. It’s the reason why, in the past, when I’ve had the chance to pick up a trip going overseas, I’ll overlook these trips in hopes of one to Frankfurt or Japan or even Hawaii, which are considered international with our company.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Britain. I love the people and the country. As soon as I got on the plane, I grabbed a sandwich, meant for the mid-flight snack; we had empty seats, so it wouldn’t be a big deal. The flight went well, I enjoyed the crew and I slept well during my break. I do like London. It’s just not the easiest place to go, especially when one is cheap. OK, maybe not cheap, but thrifty.

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