Sunday, November 25, 2007

Postscript... Cultural Experiences

Just for fun…a few episodes that were forgotten in other entries.

Episode 1—Lines and more lines
Government bureaucracy is really entertaining, in a stupid way. When we were stuck in the LONG and slow-moving customs line in London (our halfway point from the Munich-Edinburgh flight), we were chatting with several ladies a little ways behind us, who were panicking that they would miss their soon-departing flight. We invited them to go ahead of us in line and they thankfully did so. They inquired of the people up ahead in line if they could go to the front, since the plane was leaving so soon. Everyone was glad to oblige.

HOWEVER! When the customs agent found out that the ladies had CUT IN FRONT they were properly shocked at such disorderly conduct and flatly refused to process them until it was THEIR TURN. Tsk tsk! The ladies were sent back to their original place in line, like naughty little 3-year-olds who had tried to cut in line for animal crackers. It didn’t matter that everyone in line was willing to let the ladies go ahead. Da rules are da rules. Bah.

Socialism…gotta love it.

Episode 2—How DO you say it?
While in Germany, Gramps began a bit of philosophical musing as to how the Germans would say 888. “Ocht, ocht, und ocht,” he snickered and the rest of us started snickering too. It became a bit of a standing joke when we discovered words later in the trip that we weren’t sure how to pronounce. Oh that word? It probably goes ocht ocht und ocht.

Episode 3—Ain’t like over here
We explored the most interesting little pharmacy in Bath. Actually, we visited several pharmacies over the course of the trip, in quest of things like nose drops or antacids. What was surprising was that a “pharmacy” didn’t necessarily carry the typical medications we’re used to finding here—but they did carry a whole line of natural and herbal remedies!

Anyway, the pharmacy in Bath was fun because it was retrofitted into one of the old buildings. We were in quest of some batteries and were told they were downstairs. The upstairs of the pharmacy was EXTREMELY small and very crowded—about ¼ the size of a small gas station convenience store. The “downstairs” was really like a basement. A narrow flight of stairs led us down to a small and dusty cave-feeling lower floor, which housed the batteries, some purses, lotions, shampoos, and all that stuff. A small basket of on-sale lotion proved to be tiny little bottles of the stuff in a basket at floor level (a concrete floor) that were COVERED in dust and cobwebs.

Altogether, nothing like your typical CVS or Walgreens.

Episode 4—Do you speak English?
On one of our first days in London, Grandma and Heather boarded the hotel elevator to go the lobby. A bell-boy joined them on the elevator and inquired if they were headed down. Except his thick Cockney accent made it sound like “Ye-gown-dayown?”

“Yes, we’re going down,” Heather replied.

Grandma hadn’t processed the Cockney at all. It takes a little getting used to. “Do you speak English?” she asked him politely.

Ah well…he should have heeded the advice of the dastardly villain in the Crown Jewels skit at the Tower of London and said it slowly—for the Americans.

From There to Here: Flying Home

Raquelle: The next morning we arose bright and early and finished our last minute packing. Dad and Gramps patiently hauled the suitcases down the four flights of stairs. Ugh. What a chore.

Heather: Keep in mind that a “flight” of stairs often really means two flights of stairs with a landing. So we actually had to climb about six flights of stairs, with lots of little turnings, and landings and doors along the way.

Raquelle: But hey, we could have had it worse. We actually had some of the “upscale” rooms—we had a private bath. There were other rooms in the Barry House that did NOT.

As I recall, we were leaving before the Official Breakfast Hour. (And we knew better than to go looking for coffee!) So we snacked on granola and such things.

We had carefully arranged ahead of time for a van to come and drive us to Gatwick airport. The hotel proprietor (the nice gentleman with the turban) had arranged it for us and Dad had even called the van company night before to confirm it.

Smug in the knowledge that we were packed and ready on time and that we were headed for home and our own beds, we went out on the sidewalk to wait. Well, a few of us did. It was too nippy to stay out there for too long.

Heather: Perhaps it was just Dad’s sixth traveling sense, but he had been suspicious about that van all along. As soon as we were up, he was calling the van company to make sure the van was coming. “Oh yes, it’s on the way,” they said. In fact, they said that every time Dad called after that… which was about six more times.

As we all got more and more tense, realizing that we would miss our plane if the van didn’t show up soon, Dad became more and more irate with the van company. At last the very polite, very unhelpful people on the other end decided to call ANOTHER van to come pick us up since they SAID they had no idea what happened to the first driver.

By this point, we had all discussed Plan B and Plan C and every other plan we could think of to get to the airport on time. The only thing that might have worked was calling three cabs to take all of us – but the cost would have been astronomical. We could have attempted to take a train but that also meant getting cabs and then buying tickets and hoping we catch the train in time. We were praying hard. At the last possible minute, the van FINALLY showed up.

The driver (the new one, not the original one) was a very affable black man, understood our problem and proceeded to drive like a maniac to the airport (which was about an hour’s drive away). He was kind of a goofy guy and apparently talked a mile a minute to Dad and Gramps, maybe trying to calm them down. I didn’t hear the conversation but they said it was entertaining.

Raquelle: I heard some of it. He had traveled not too long ago to…oh, I forget exactly where, but someplace like Taiwan or something. He was very enthusiastic and was telling Dad all about it and about a lot of the neat things he bought there because the prices were so much better.

“Do you like to shop?” he asked Dad eagerly.

“Some,” said Dad. I could tell that Dad’s mind was really at the airport, not on shopping. J

“I never used to be a shopping guy,” the driver explained and I got the feeling he’d been drug along on a lot of those wife-inspired shopping trips. J “But then I found out that I could buy things for myself!” he enthused, and waxed eloquent over various neat things he’d found and bargains he got. Some of his bargains were of a, er, dubious nature.

“You see,” he told us gleefully, “I would buy my wife a diamond ring and say it was a gift so we could get it through customs. And then I’d sell it over here and make a lot of money.”

Um, right.

Anyhow, I at least was entertained. J And I frankly felt sort of sorry for the guy—he was trying so hard to get Dad to relax and poor Dad would not be able to relax until we had braved the stupidity of the Gatwick airport and were safely on the plane. We had absolutely no wiggle room—everything would have to go EXACTLY like clockwork for us to make the plane.

Heather: When we reached the airport, we all hurtled out of the van, threw the suitcases out and ran for the elevator to take us to the terminal. Mom had dug out some cash to tip the driver, knowing Dad wouldn’t have time while wrestling suitcases. The driver was very appreciative and wished us well.

Of course, if you think that because we were at the airport, our troubles were over, then you are thinking of the calm, sane, sensible airports we have in the US. No, in Gatwick we had to brave an enormous security line, at the same time breasting outgoing traffic. Then you have to race to your gate, which gets changed so you can race to another gate. Then, if you’re me, you flop down on the floor and try to sleep while waiting to board.

Raquelle: The people-traffic was RIDICULOUS. There were HUGE, solid crowds of people cramming the area. The line for security wound around and around and around and around. It was so long that occasionally an airport personnel person would come by and inquire if anyone’s flight was leaving in the next 20 minutes or so. In which case, the lucky dogs would get to go to the front of the line.

Lest you think it was a technological issue, it wasn’t. Gatwick had about a number of X-ray machines. But they were, y’know….yawn….only working three of them or so.

There was also an ENORMOUS line at the ticket counter. However, Dad had an ace card…he is Chairman’s Preferred with USAir, remember? So we were all able to skip the line entirely and deal with an agent who only handled Preferred Members. That probably saved us a good half hour at the least.

At last we were through all the stupid processing and could scramble our way to the gate. I had hoped to find a ladies’ room, but a quick inspection revealed that the nearest ladies’ room was down the hall, down an elevator, and three miles east. J You know, in a US airport there are facilities every couple of gates, ready, accessible and handy. But not here, nope. Sheesh.

However, I wasn’t complaining. We were at the gate! We could make the flight! YAY! YIPPEE!!!! Praise God!!! We were very, very thankful. We only had about ten minutes before they started boarding. Whew!

Heather: So at last, we made it onto the flight itself. And then we all took a deep breath – well, as deep a breath as you can take in those little vacuum-packed sardine tins they call planes – and relaxed.

I think we all slept some, and read some. I got entertained by a baby a few seats further up. It was a British family “on holiday” and the baby was probably 18 months and walking everywhere. She wasn’t crabby, but she had a stuffy nose and was also rather noisy. And she kept trying to greet everyone as she went by. American babies say “hi” but she kept trying to say “hello” with the cutest British accent. It was funny.

At last we landed, and let me tell you, the Charlotte airport is peaceful, calm, quiet, serene, carpeted, and CLEAN. (Did I mention the lack of carpeting in the main check-in areas at the European airports?) It was WONDERFUL!!!

After going through, security we ambled to the door and Dad went off to get the van out of parking. We all felt gay and happy and as happy to be home as we were to leave home at the beginning. Gramps gave Grandma a high-five. “We did it, gal!” he crowed.

Then we hoisted the suitcases into the van, took a deep breath of clean Carolina air, and headed home!

The afternoon was relaxed as we unpacked a bit, took a nap or two and then got cleaned up to go to the Golden Corral for supper.

And that, my friends, is the final account of the final day of our trip to Europe!!!

British Library, Westminster Abbey and book shopping

Raquelle: We woke up to the knowledge that this was our last full day in London. Were we glad or sorry? Well, I think most of us leaned more towards glad. We were all getting travel-weary and, after the miniscule wittsy-weensy rooms at the Barry House, we were longing for our own spacious rooms at home. (Definition of spacious: You can sit on your bed and stretch your arms out sideways withOUT hitting the window on one side and the bathroom sink on the other. J Did I mention the rooms had no air-conditioning?)

Our stops for today: The British Library, Westminster Abbey, and book shopping.

The British Library, for those who don’t know, is more than just a library. It has a very large room with all kinds of rare manuscripts, including the Magna Carta.

But first we had to eat breakfast in the little downstairs breakfast room….scrambled eggs, salty ham, dead toast and hot tea. They had a tiny television in one corner, running the news. The talking heads on the news were on the dorkiest, clunkiest, cheesiest, cheapest looking set. Puh-lease. Musta been a local station. Quite entertaining.

It was about a half-hour tube ride to the library. Again I was struck by the outlandish things that people wear in London. They wear the strangest, most startling combinations of things. I was particularly fascinated by a lady across from me. She wore a black sleeveless cotton shirt, a dark greenish-black brocade-looking skirt, a necklace with enormous (1+ inch) ugly glass beads, a band of leopard skin wrapped around her wrist and--the clincher--canvas boots with hideous green, yellow and pink flowers painted on them. Man, it was all I could do to drag my eyes away from her boots. I didn’t want to stare and be rude but my goodness—I’ve never seen boots like that in my life and I hope I never do again. Shudder!

Once off the tube we headed down the sidewalk, avoiding the mess created by a walled-off construction area. There was a line into the library. That’s because they have security there—just a quick peek into your bags.

Heather: As we waited in line, I noticed one of the “benefits” of a socialistic society – everything gets cleaned a lot. A man was mopping (I kid you not) the outside sidewalk area in front of the British Museum. Your tax dollars at work. (If you’re British, that is. J)

Raquelle: When I got to the security table, a jolly older gentleman checked my camera bag.

“Do ye hayve an obbledeeguck?” he asked. (I don’t know WHAT under the canopy the word was.)

“I’m sorry?” I asked politely.

“An obbledeeguck?” he repeated.

I leaned forward apologetically. “I’m sorry?” I asked again, feeling like a dumb tourist.

“Ah well, obviously not,” he concluded and handed me back the bag.

The suspense is eating at me. Maybe I DID have an obbledeeguck, but I’ll never know!!!

We headed for the rare documents room. They had a large collection of fascinating items. There were several copies of the Magna Carta—I believe there are only 4 copies known to still exist and they had two of them. One of them had been badly damaged in a fire, unfortunately, but the other was in reasonably good shape for such an old document. There was also the Papal Bull that was issued condemning the Magna Carta. Cool.

Heather: Something that Gramps and I were talking about that surprised us was that we had pictured “the Magna Charta” as one document that King John sat down and signed. But there were actually lots of copies made and they had the royal seal fixed to them to make them legal. Apparently there was no formal signing service with a big, bee-ootiful ballpoint pen as dignitaries looked on – oh wait, that’s when the President signs a bill. Nevermind.

Raquelle: Other documents of interest included Lady Jane Grey’s illuminated (that is, ornately hand-illustrated) prayer book, a letter from Sir Thomas More to King Henry, proclaiming that he was in fact a loyal servant to the crown (Henry didn’t believe him and whopped off his head….nice fellow), some handwritten material by Jane Austen, some original scores by Handel and Mozart, a story by whoever the guy was who wrote “Alice In Wonderland” (I can NOT remember his name, I ought to know it—Lewis Carroll, that’s it!!!), and other stuff.

There was even, ladies and gentlemen, a CONFEDERATE item of interest. It was a metal stamp used for making Confederate postage stamps. Cool.

Heather: There was also a letter from George Washington there. They had a whole American exhibit with some neat things.

Once we finished the documents room, we took a quick 15 minutes in the current Special Exhibit display. It was of the sacred documents from the Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths. Ancient Scripture texts, translations, and commentaries. It was really, really neat and I wished we could have stayed longer. But we had to leave and get to our next destination – Westminster Abbey.

My only vague memory of Westminster Abbey from our last Europe trip (in 1999) was of a long hall and a big organ. I remembered the organ because (duh) we were there for an organ recital. However, there is a LOT more to the abbey than that.

King Edward the Confessor (who predates the Norman invasion of 1066, in case you’re interested) built the first Westminster Abbey on that site. And it has been a royal abbey ever since. Do you, ladies and gentlemen, realize the significance of this?

It means that all the Big Mucky Mucks get buried there. The list includes, but is most certainly not limited to: David Livingston, Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, George Frederick Handel, Rudyard Kipling and forty-leven kings and queens (Edwards, Henrys, Elizabeth, Charles, Anne, Mary and George and suchlike). We also noted Charles Darwin’s slab, which was fortunately on the floor since Dad decided to stomp on it.

Raquelle: Well…actually…tee hee…Mom and I had fun with Darwin’s grave too and stood over it and sneered, “P-tooh!” (That’s the polite feminine version of spitting. J)

Heather: It took us a long time to go all the way around and look at all the inscriptions, plaques, monuments, tombs, slabs, and statues. We were decidedly footsore at the end.

Westminster Abbey has also been a royal coronation site for umpteen-leven years. So the coronation throne is there – it’s rather boring looking, but exceedingly ancient. It’s built so that it will hold the Stone of Scone that we had seen in Scotland – the stone that all Scottish monarchs are crowned on. Of course, the Stone in is still in Scotland but whenever there is a coronation, they will bring it back to Westminster so the new king or queen can sit on it and thus be a legal monarch of Scotland. (Tradition is a wonderful thing. Can you imagine in America saying the President isn’t legal till he sits on a rock?)

Raquelle: It’s actually kind of entertaining, because the reason the chair was built to accommodate the Stone of Scone was basically so that the monarch of England could say, “Nyah-nyah, we conquered you Scots! Ha ha, we have your rock! And we’re coming after your peanut-butter-and-jelly samwich next!!” This is how bagpipes came into being, because the Scots were so furious they decided to get even with the English and create an instrument that would make such a deafening noise that the English would forever stop trying to take their sandwiches! Well, okay, maybe I just made that part about the bagpipes up…

Westminster Abbey is VERY crowded. Not with people—with markers and monuments and memorials. Which is not surprising, as it’s had hundreds of years to accumulate them. You could spend days there and not read every marker.

It was especially cool to stand at the elaborate tombs of the famous kings and queens of England that you read about in history books. Suddenly history is no longer a page on a book—it’s real! You can touch it. And you feel like if you could just sweep away the annoying cobweb of time, you could actually be talking to those kings and queens in person!

Heather: Finally, we left the abbey and started wandering around, looking for lunch. There were lots of small shops that sold food, but none of them had chairs to sit in. Or else the chairs were full. Customer service, especially concerning food, is very different in the UK. Chairs are scarce, trashcans are nonexistent, and people act affronted if you want anything unusual done to your food. I couldn’t find a place that sold pasties, so I had a couple samovars instead, which are a lot like pasties. Mom and Raquelle had sandwiches (how boring) and I don’t remember what Dad and Gramps had.

Raquelle: It’s not my fault that I ended up with a boring sandwich. I tried to order something else…I’ve forgotten what…and received a blank, peeved stare from the bored clerk. “We don’t have those,” she said, annoyed.

“But your sign says you do,” I pressed, arguing the point closely and gesturing at the chalkboard.

“Yeah, well, we don’t. We’re out,” she said, impatiently.

Actually, they were out of just about everything. The attractive display of items on the chalkboard had absolutely no grounding in reality. Why they didn’t have EXTRA when they KNOW there will be a lunch crowd is more than I can fathom. But that’s very typical over there. Yawn. I mean, look, customers can always go somewhere else, right? Why bother?

Heather: Grandma pondered about her choice for a while and finally chose hot soup. Then she said there was no way she could stand in the street and eat soup. Our sympathy changed to skepticism when our Highly Dexterous Grandma spotted a bunch of cheap street vendors and proceed to not only eat soup in the street, but shop at the same time. Picture her with a precarious cup of soup in one hand and industriously rooting through piles of merchandise with the other. She ended up buying a snazzy little purse and we all applauded her ambidexterity.

Raquelle: Wait, wait, wait. Heather isn’t describing this in near enough detail. “Cheap street vendor” doesn’t give you the picture at all. Picture this: First, it’s crowded. Clothes racks and tables of junk are everywhere. We end up next to several LARGE tables pushed together. There are HEAPS of purses piled in clumps. Two Very Big And Gregarious black guys (what do you suppose they call them over there…African-Englishmen?) are rapidly seizing armfuls of the purses and shoving them into black plastic garbage bags as they begin to pack up for the day. They are trying to sell Grandma on a purse. You shoulda heard the sales job. Since the purses only cost one pound apiece (about $2) we had our suspicions about them. Like maybe they were, uh, hot goods? But who knows? J

Heather: By this time, we all decidedly needed to sit down. Shopping (or watching people shop!) can be exhausting, you know. So we found a little shop that was empty and walked in. They sold smoothies and other fruit drinks so we all ordered some. It took a few minutes to prepare them but the proprietors assured us they would be very, very tasty. And they were! And the seats felt wonderful!

We got into a conversation with the proprietors. Grandma was curious about their nationality and the lady told her they were Persian. That’s what Iranians call themselves when they don’t want to say they’re from Iran. J Turns out they love America, have family there and would like to go there themselves someday. They were nice folks.

The lady was laughing about the climate difference between Iran and England. She said that the first several months she spent in England (in the summer) she stayed huddled up in her scarves and coats. “But now I do not mind it,” she smiled and she and her husband (who were wearing short sleeves) chuckled at us in our long sleeves and jackets. We finally finished, wished them well and gave them a tract before leaving.

The last stop of the day was going to be book shopping. But for some reason, we never did end up in any really good book shops. So everyone’s purchases were minimal.

Raquelle: The bookstores were a combination of antique books and 20-year-old paperbacks. We kept thinking there were going to be actual “antique book” stores, so we were somewhat disappointed. But it was fun to poke around…some of the shops were very tiny but were CRAMMED with books. And you should have seen the cash register area at one of them. It was this tiny nook made of plywood, squished in a corner. You want to sign a credit card slip? No problem! Just, y’know, try to prop it on the ½ inch width of plywood there…

Grandma drew my attention to a quote someone had tacked on the wall. “You’ll like this, Raquelle,” she said. And I did like it. I forget the exact wording but it was something like, “It’s all very well and good to read the classics, but can you waggle your ears?” J

Heather: At last, footsore and weary, we headed back to our rooms to lay down for a brief nap before dinner. And dinner, we decided, would be at Garfunkle’s again, since we all felt the need of a “known quantity.” I think I ordered a hamburger, if I remember right. We all had a good time reviewing the details of our trip and chatting at dinner.

Raquelle: As our last fling, we all ordered scandalous desserts…ice cream on pancakes with butterscotch, and cheesecake and such things.

Heather: Then it was off to pack before bedtime. Morning was going to be dreadfully early so we wanted to get as much done the night before as possible. And so ended our last full day in Europe.