The last time I went abroad was in May 2008, when I visited another good friend from high school (Ellen) in South Korea. I spent six glorious days exploring the Land of the Rising Sun with Ellen, including a powerful trip to the DMZ, briefly setting foot in North Korea while under visual and video surveillance. Four years later, I set off for England with the same luggage, but a new brand-spanking new passport, ready for visa stamps.
Luckily for me, my awesome friend George was able to take me to the airport, saving me from having to lug my 40+ lb suitcase around on Muni. Checking in at the airport was a breeze until I had to drop my bag. There were no United agents on the self-check-in side, so I went to the staffed side to find one huge line with three people working the economy counter. It turns out there was also a flight to Germany leaving within 20 minutes of my flight to Heathrow, adding to the crowd of passengers trying to check in. After waiting for a half hour, a counter representative finally offered the option of taking the bags to be checked by those who had utilized the self-check-in already. I was annoyed, but not surprised by the treatment and behavior of United. And given how wonderfully things went when I checked in at Heathrow the following week, retroactively MORE angry that they couldn’t get their shit together for two lousy flights.
I arrived at the gate with time to spare, even after stopping in W.H. Smith to buy the most expensive Chapstick ever. Being in Economy Plus, I got to board in Group 5, which really drove home the size of the aircraft winging us to London. I was in a window seat next to two unrelated gentlemen who did not attempt to converse or make eye contact with me, just how I like it. They were also accommodating when I had to break my rule and get up to use the bathroom prior to landing, which was quite nice.
One thing this flight had going for it (besides the mere fact that it was taking me to London!) was the on-demand screen at each seat, featuring more movies, TV shows, and games than one could play on ten trips to London. I was really pleasantly surprised at the selection of shows and movies available and couldn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the options. I happily settled into my seat to watch six episodes from the first season of Happy Endings, reminding HOW GOOD that show really is. I also watched most of the episodes of Parks and Recreation from earlier this season, falling just a little bit more in love with Amy Poehler (and I didn’t know that was possible).
During all this fabulous television consumption, our flight attendants were hard at work to keep us hydrated and fed. Within an hour of take off, I had a beverage in my hand. An hour later, they served us dinner (as seen above), which was actually tastier than it looks with another beverage. Soon after, the overhead lights went off and I attempted to sleep. However, despite my professed ability to sleep anywhere, I had a hard time getting comfortable. Every time I would find a position that would allow my legs to stretch while balanced against the window with my pea coat as a pillow, something would wake me and I’d have to start all over again.
However, I must have slept more than I realized because soon enough, the lights came back on and we were being served breakfast. I was enormously grateful for the banana which really perked me up (with my orange juice) and helped me feel like I could get through the day. After a pit stop in the scariest bathroom EVER, I pulled my shoes back on and started to prep myself to face the world again. Having two exits from the plane helped the deplaning process go much quicker. I was also excited to see that the exiting passengers really do pass over top the waiting passengers in a windowed walkway as we saw at the end of Bend It Like Beckham.
I had changed into my glasses during the flight, so I wouldn’t have to sleep in my contacts. I stopped in the bathroom before passport control, ready to pull out my one-quart bag with Ponds wipes, a set of contacts and Colgate Wisps and feel like myself again. However, I quickly realized, while frantically digging through my carry-on bag, that the little bag was not in my carry-on anymore. I don’t know if I left it at security at SFO or if it remained on the plane under my seat, having fallen out when I grabbed something else from there. At any rate, I had to head to immigration in my glasses without a fresh face or fresh breath.
The wait at immigration felt longer than it actually was, taking me about 45 minutes to clear. I was probably way too hyper for my immigration agent, but she took my enthusiasm in stride, wishing me a good holiday as I left with a fabulous new stamp in my passport. The great thing about waiting in immigration was that my bag was waiting for me on the conveyor belt when I got to baggage claim. I ducked into the ladies loo to put my contacts in before getting some cash from the ATM. Of course, the first ATM I tried wouldn’t read my card, giving me momentary heart failure that I wouldn’t be able to get cash in England after all. But the second ATM, outside customs, worked just fine.
I found the lift down to the Underground station and my Oyster card worked like a charm. Before I knew it, I was on a “Picadilly Line service to Cockfosters” and grinning like a fool. Each line’s coaches are designed for that line’s stops, so I was happy to find plenty of space in the coach to place my large suitcase without blocking anyone. I was surprised that folks just stack their belongings at the front of the coach and sit down elsewhere, but I was happy to oblige. I was excited to go through Hounslow (home to Jess and the Harriers in Bend It Like Beckham), which Katia assures me is the first time anyone’s ever felt that emotion in Hounslow. The Picadilly Line goes through Central London on its way to Kings Cross, so I was giddy at hearing the familiar stops announced as I made my way to my next destination.
Entering Kings Cross station for the first time, I was overwhelmed and excited at the hustle and bustle of the train station. Thanks to Katia’s superb directions, I found the ticket counter without a problem and picked up my train tickets that I had already purchased. There was a train leaving in 15 minutes, which I hoped to be on, but I needed to find a payphone to let Katia know that I was going to be VERY early. I got change by purchasing the Most Expensive Twix Bar Ever (£1.90 or about $3), but it turns out there are no payphones in the new Kings Cross station! I knew I didn’t have time to get down to the Underground to find a phone there, so I decided to wing it and get on the train. I caught the 1615 “Cambridge Express” from Platform 9 (yes, I did see Platform 9 3/4, but there was a queue), getting one of the last seats in the front car.
Within moments of exiting Kings Cross station, we were in the countryside, looking so gorgeous in the abundant sunshine. I was not expecting the pilot to say that it was currently 23°C (about 73°F) and sunny when we landed, but it was a welcome surprise. I was a bit sweaty on the train, in boots and a sweater, carrying my peacoat, but it was a great problem to have. I was enraptured by the sights we passed at high-speed along my way to Cambridge. It was clear that I was sitting with commuters, who were busy with their phones and laptops, but I could hardly keep my nose from pressing against the window as I realized that I was really HERE, in England. Forty-five minutes after leaving Kings Cross, we arrived in Cambridge and my adventure was really going to start!