UK: “It’s the saddest part of my day, leaving you.”

It’s been four months since I left the UK, so clearly this post is long overdue. But since my last postcard from the UK arrived in the States last week, I don’t feel like I’m too behind the Royal Mail. My last day in the UK, much like this post, was bittersweet. I was just finally figuring out how to get to the bus stop on time, which restaurants are worth a second visit and how to power-walk past slow-moving tourists in the Underground like a local. But all good things must come to an end, so armed with a list of things to do “next time,” I tried to manage the LONGEST DAY EVER with a little bit of grace.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012
I woke up at the same time I did on Tuesday and quickly got dressed. The sun was barely out, but the flat was already warm. I knew it was going to be another hot day. The weather had been a pleasant surprise, but I had not brought the right wardrobe! I dragged my large, purple suitcase down the four flights of stairs to the ground level, mentally apologizing to Katia’s neighbors as I went. It felt like I had just arrived and here I was, pulling my suitcase behind me again.

Katia walked with me to the bus stop and waited until my #1 bus came. We had our goodbye at the curb before I boarded my last double-decker bus. I would NOT have been able to take this trip if not for her generosity and willingness to share to her flat. She was a fabulous and patient tour guide for this hapless tourist. I’m so blessed that we’ve been friends for so long, through so many things and across many thousands of miles. She invited me to come back next year and I’m definitely going to try. Of course, Australia and Ireland are also calling (for very different reasons), so who knows where I might end up?!

I knew I would not be able to lift my suitcase into the baggage hold at the front, so I settled for holding it next to me as I sat on the aisle on the first floor. I felt lucky to get a seat during the morning rush, but I felt terrible about blocking most of the aisle with my humongous bag. However, all those around me were absolutely delightful about it, waving off my fervent apologies when they had to squeeze around it to get off the bus. Once again, I was impressed by the hospitality of the Brits, knowing that I would NOT be receiving the same treatment on the other end of my journey. Perhaps they’d be rude to each other, but were showing courtesy to this American. Either way, bravo!

At Cambridge station, my train was leaving from platform 7, which requires going up the stairs and over the first set of tracks. I headed for the lift, only to find it out of order. Cursing under my breath, I dragged my suitcase back to the three flights of stairs and I resigned myself lugging the enormous bag up each individual stair. At the second set of stairs, one of the exiting passengers, a good-looking bloke in a suit with great eyes and a gorgeous accent, asked if I needed help. I replied that I did, but didn’t want him to hurt himself. He asked if the bag was heavy and I replied that it was at least 40 pounds. He hefted it and decided it wasn’t too bad, carrying it effortlessly up the last two flights of stairs. I thanked him profusely and he pointed out the lift on the other side of the bridge. I finally met a nice English guy and he has to rush off to work!

The trip to Heathrow was largely uneventful. I bruised my leg trying to get my suitcase in the baggage hold behind my seat, which turned out to be moot since I had the train car to myself for most of the journey. I ate my last Special K breakfast bars and tried to drink in all the atmosphere of the train station that I could before we pulled out of Cambridge. It was hard to believe that just a week before I’d been pulling into Cambridge station for the first time, reveling in the medieval town and all the glorious sights around me.

I fought my way from the train to Underground, via the outdoor escalator, enjoying my last few breaths of London air before heading to the airport. The sun was shining and it looked like it was going to be another fantastic day. If I didn’t have the big, purple suitcase with me, I would have been very tempted to ditch everything and go exploring one more time! I had to stand on the Underground for most of the ride, but I figured I had an 11-hour flight ahead of me, so I guess it all works out. I’m still in awe of the luggage area on the Picadilly line and wish that the BART trains had a similar thing.

It was far too easy to find the check-in area at Heathrow and the staff at the United counter was incredibly helpful, which was not something I’m used to at all! After the counter agent helped me through the self-check-in, I waited in line to check my bag. I was a bit apprehensive that it would be overweight as I’d bought quite a lot while in the UK. While there, a security officer asked me a serious of questions, with a very thick accent. I had to ask him to repeat several of the questions and one question I just could NOT understand. After about the fourth time, I finally got it: he was asking if I had any firearms. I quickly answered an empathic “NO!” but felt quite ridiculous. He did give me a sticker on the back of my passport and I was permitted to leave the country, so I guess I answered correctly.

I felt quite a bit lighter after leaving my checked luggage and made my way quickly through security. There was a large food court, but I bypassed it to head to my gate to see what kind of food might be down there. Turns out, there’s only food and shops in the main area and the rest is just gates. The gates don’t open until about an hour before flight time, so you can’t even sit down. I trekked back to the main shopping area and had lunch at Pret. I do prefer EAT, but alas, there was only Pret. Being back the States, I miss both establishments very much!

After lunch, I wandered back down to my gate area and waited to enter the gate properly. Finally, about an hour before take off, we had our passports checked again and we could sit down. All too soon, it was time for boarding and winging back to the States. I was seated next to a set of senior sisters who had just spent two weeks in Ireland. The one in the middle seat introduced herself and I feared she’d be a talker. Luckily, she took the hint when I put my headphones on and we didn’t have to continue to make small talk for eleven hours. I passed the time with a magazine and some Cougar Town reruns as well as a very long (uncomfortable) nap.

I felt quite wrung out by the time I got off the plane. I managed to gather all my belongings this time, not leaving a bag of souvenirs behind like my trip in 1995. I gathered my suitcase rather quickly and then headed to the long line at customs. I briefly called my parents to check it and it was a bit strange to use my phone again. I’d gotten very used to being disconnected while abroad. I slightly overestimated my haul of souvenirs, which raised an eyebrow from the customs agent, but I laughed it off with talk of all the family that needed a gift. He stamped my form and sent me on my way.

I took my parents’ suggestion and grabbed a cab home instead of fighting BART and Muni at rush hour. I was nearly asleep by the time he pulled into my driveway, but it was great to get home in 45 minutes instead of an hour and a half. I left my suitcase in the hallway and crashed out on the bed. Luckily, I had taken the following day off work and I definitely needed it to right myself in the Pacific timezone again.

I absolutely LOVED my trip to the UK and I desperately want to return again, hopefully sooner than 17 years from now!