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May Balls... in June?

Started: 2005-06-20 15:27:00

Submitted: 2005-06-20 17:10:00

Visibility: World-readable

Random question for the day: What does "D G REG F D", inscribed on all Pound Sterling coins, and "Decus Et Tutamen", inscribed around the outside of the one quid (er, £1) coins, mean? I have no doubt a quick Google query would turn this up, but so far into my experience in the United Kingdom, my Internet connection has been sharply limited, although not from lack of trying.

This is my first changelog written from British Summer Time, and from the United Kingdom in general; so it doesn't look like I'm writing web content at 1530 MDT, I may finally get around to writing fancy time zone support into my my changelog engine, just like the fancy time zone support I implemented in my photo engine after my last trip to Europe.

After my last changelog, I boarded Continental flight 489 from Denver to Houston, which was fairly uneventful on a 757-200 except that we managed to get on the ground something like half an hour ahead of schedule through a turn of events that was never fully described. I caught the people-mover (which I should have videographically documented; it looked suspiciously similar to the underground inter-terminal ones at DIA, right down to the cheery recorded voice) to Concourse E, where I found gate eighteen, called Kiesa, asked her to return a grievously overdue library book, and boarded a gigantic Boeing 777, powered by a pair of the most powerful jet engines on the planet, for my trip across the pond. I sat in seat 33L, which probably was the thirty-third row back (I didn't count) but wasn't the twelfth seat across. Unlike the widebody airplanes I've previously flown upon, Continental operates its triple-sevens in 3-3-3 configuration; three groups of three seats separated by two aisles. I was on the far right of the plane, a window seat featuring two windows one row behind the behind-the-wing emergency exits and the quartet of lavatories serving most of sardine class. My window seat didn't feature much leg room; I spent the flight longing for the extra leg room afforded to those in the exit row in front of me. I couldn't find any space in the overhead compartments, forcing me to stash both of my carry-on bags at my feet. My notebook case fit under the seat in front of me, although it invaded the space my neighbor left open in front of him, but I had to stash my waist pack* at my feet and hope the flight attendants didn't notice. They didn't.

[* According to Rick Steves, "fanny" is British slang for vagina. Good thing I insist on calling my purse a "waist pack".]

The flight departed sometime around its scheduled departure time of 1845 CDT. Four large LCD screens on the bulkhead one row in front of me showed a situation display when they weren't showing the safety video at the beginning of the flight or the occasional Continental ad. I watched as we flew north-east from George Bush Intercontinental Airport, flying over Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, skirting the corner of Georgia (I couldn't quite tell if we entered its airspace from the map), and Tennessee before dinner.

Our flight left Houston at 0045 BST Sunday morning, meaning that I really should have been asleep by the time we left, according to jetlag manuals. I followed the Argonne National Labs anti-jetlag diet with some degree of success; my fast on Saturday was especially effective, since I was exhausted due to lack of calories (and staying up the previous night waiting for Bethany to come in) when I walked onto the plane. After dinner (which was actually passable, although they used too much black pepper and not nearly enough salt in my pseudo-Indian main dish), I attempted to sleep sometime around 0230 BST.

Unlike my previous two trans-Atlantic flights, I actually managed to sleep fairly well on the plane. (If I can judge things this far into my trip, I think I'm doing fairly well with jetlag as a result; I'm not nearly as moody as I was in Rome in 2002 (sorry, Kiesa; it's actually embarrassing to go back and read my changelogs from the trip), and I wasn't quite as exhausted yesterday afternoon as I was on my day of arrival in either Rome or Frankfurt in 1997.) My secret: I went to Changes of Latitude, Boulder's local travel store, and invested in an inflatable neck pillow and a sleep mask. With that equipment, I slept most of the time from 0230 until 0730 BST, which still wasn't much, but it was far better than nothing.

My special vegetarian breakfast (I would have been happy to eat the croissant my omnivorous fellow passengers ate; my shrink-wrapped bagel was a bit ... meager) came as we were still in international waters somewhere off the south coast of Ireland. (I don't know if the passengers on the north side of the plane could see anything or not.) I was pretty excited when I spotted western England from my window: little fields separated by the puny British excuse for hedgerows. (See the Allied experience fighting in massive Norman hedgerows for more details.)

We landed at London's Gatwick airport (really halfway between London and England's southern coast) at 0955 and slowly shuffled off the aircraft.

In second class, which I think Continental dubs "BusinessFirst", at least three children -- one an infant in a carrier -- had their own seats. It was all I could do to avoid gagging, especially after sitting in a non-cheap tiny seat for nine hours.

After an endless maze of twisty passages (although they weren't all alike), we made our way to Her Majesty's Immigration, where non-EU nationals shuffled around the long way into a massive queue to convince Her Majesty's subjects that we should in fact be allowed into the country. After queuing for ninety minutes, I made it to the immigration officer, who looked at my American passport and my landing card (authorized by the Immigration Act of 1971, which I'm going to have to look up; many signs in Britain cite laws to justify what they assert) and asked three questions: How long will you be in the country (until Saturday), where did I fly in from (uh, Houston), and what is the primary purpose of my trip (business). She stamped my entry card (which she kept; it could be used to prove that I entered the country under false pretenses if in fact I had) and my passport (which she gave back) and welcomed me to the country. I was officially on British soil.

Before I could go out into the country at large, I had to locate my luggage. My quality time in the queue had given my baggage plenty of time to go around the carousel several times and finally be stacked in a pile between two carousels. I grabbed my bag, attempted to stack everything together (I finally figured out how I could use my notebook carrying case to secure it to my rolling suitcase, which worked great except when I had to go up or down stairs), and exited through customs, which involved picking the passageway marked "Nothing to Declare", passing a few empty and unmanned customs booths, and exiting through the arrivals gate.

The theory was that a driver was supposed to meet me at the gate and take me to my hotel. Not entirely sure where to go when I left the arrivals gate, I quickly ducked out of the gauntlet of people waiting to meet their parties, many of them with signs bearing the identities of their parties. I wandered the terminal until I located my first objective: an ATM, which happily accepted my 1stBank card and gave me yuppie food stamps with the Queen's portrait on them. I located the Taxi exit and headed out to it, but I couldn't find anything resembling the taxi I was supposed to take; all I knew was that it was called Business Drive and they'd meet me at the arrivals gate. I returned to the terminal, exchanged my Pounds sterling for a packaged deli sandwich, a bag of crisps, and a bottle of Fanta; it was 1200 and I was hungry. After I ate, I asked the information desk about my driver. They paged the airport, no one showed up, and I gave up.

I had the mobile (pronounced on this side of the Atlantic as "mo-BILE", not like we Americans say "MO-bl") number of my host Keith; after consulting Rick Steves, I dropped a one quid coin into a nearby payphone, punched a bunch of cryptic digits, and eventually talked to a British guy I'd never met who told me everything he knew about the cab (which wasn't much), suggested a few courses of action I'd already taken, and suggested the best thing to do would be to get a train to Cambridge. I thought that was a great idea, since I was hoping I'd have the chance to take a train anyway.

I headed to the train station (which I had previously located) and out into the 32°C humid heat. (It had been chilly on the plane, probably 17°C, which was really too cold for shorts and a t-shirt, especially after a 30°C Boulder and a humid but air-conditioned Houston.) I consulted the schedules and concluded I wanted to take the Thameslink to King's Cross and some other train from there into Cambridge. (That was by far not my only option; another was to take the Gatwick Express into Victoria Station, take the Underground ("mind the gap") to Liverpool Street Station, and take another train into Cambridge. I found out later that the second route would have put me on the slow train to Cambridge, which I was glad I avoided.) I successfully wielded my Visa to buy a £23.10 one-way ticket to Cambridge and hopped on the next Thameslink train that came by.

The fast electric train whisked me northwards, through the countryside of southern Britain into London. As we traveled (cruising at what felt like 100 km/h), it occurred to me that I really was in the United Kingdom, traveling northwards to a city prominently located on my short list of places to visit, although I was too tired and still slightly in shock by the whole experience for it to really sink in.

I looked up from my seat just in time to notice that I was crossing the Thames River. I looked right and saw the Millennium Bridge, London Bridge, and the Tower Bridge; I looked left and saw Blackfriars Bridge and Waterloo Bridge. I was in London.

From what I've been able to gather, it appears that all of the trains serving London (as opposed to the Underground itself) are operated by independent private companies that use the same ticketing system. The biggest problem with this scheme is trains from different companies don't stop at the same stops; to get from the Thameslink to King's Cross Station I had to wander through a maze of cylindrical passages, up and down several flights of stairs, until I finally emerged into King's Cross Station, the southern terminus of a large number of trains destined for northern Great Britain; one headed to Edinburgh.

I boarded a wagn train for Cambridge on track 8 and settled in for the fifty-minute ride into Cambridge. A group of five students (high school or college I couldn't tell) sat across the aisle from me; one Briton complained bitterly about the merits of cold beer, especially on absurdly hot days. It was all I could do to avoid nodding off; it was hot in the non-air-conditioned car, and the windows open for ventilation were not doing much good.

At Cambridge Station, I bought 500 ml of orange juice and caught a cab across town to my hotel, a Holiday Inn outside town almost in the nearby town of Impington. At 1600, I checked into room 115, took a shower (I was dripping in sweat; plus, showering was suggested as a good way to refresh one's self), unpacked into my room for the remainder of the week, and contemplated my options for the evening. I knew I had to stay awake until a reasonable, early bedtime. I napped briefly, mostly by accident, and decided to actually do something of value. Shortly after 1900, I ate supper at the local restaurant, which perked me up (or it could have been the Pepsi) enough to wander into town. False laziness led me to walk; I figured it couldn't be too far, so I took my GPS, my video camera, and my memory stick with my first changelog, and headed south into town.

Along the way, I caught some evidence of a bus that might take me towards town, which I filed for future reference. I spotted gas on sale for £0.89/litre, which works out to something like US$5/gallon. (Bloody hell.) In town, I searched for the cybercafes listed on Wikitravel's Cambridge page but came up empty-handed. After wandering around for a while, I caught a cab back to my hotel (the driver perked up when I tipped him (rounding up, as suggested by Rick Steves)), went to bed, called Kiesa (my hotel charges US$2.50/minute for calls to the US, but I thought one minute would be worth it), voicemailed her, and went to sleep at 2230, British Summer Time.

The title refers to the University of Cambridge tradition to hold massive parties in the week after finals but before graduation called "May Balls". According to my cab drivers, these parties can cost £200 for two tickets and last until 0600. This evening, I saw -- and filmed -- a massive queue outside Emmanuel College, clad entirely in black bowties and prom dresses. That, and the rest of my Monday in Britain, will have to wait for another changelog. I'm way past my bedtime, even if Kiesa is just now getting off work.