I spend the few weeks that follow my grandfather’s funeral just putzing around Norfolk not sure what to do. I know I’m heading back on the road sometime but I’m having trouble deciding when and where. I’m stuck in limbo, going back and forth on what is the best city to start in, what the best day to leave is, what about this, what about that - I am overwhelmed by options, endless options. Finally I tell myself I just have to pick an arbitrary date and move towards it. That’s the only solution.
So I book a plane to London for October 16th. It’s pretty cheap and I figure I can reach out to the couch-surfing host I was originally supposed to stay with the first time around. The flight is out of Baltimore so I have to take a train from Richmond to get up there. Even with the $62 ticket for the train, I’m still only looking at about $370 to get to London. I cash in some credit card points and that more than covers it. Essentially I’m getting back to Europe for free. Nice. (Shout out to Jonathan Plante for teaching me how to get the most out of my money and countless other tips for traveling the world).
Friday morning my parents give me a lift to the Amtrak station in Richmond. It's a pretty uneventful train ride up to Baltimore. I arrive at the airport about 2:30pm. Five hours until my flight. Around 4:30pm check-in begins and I get in line. The group before me has a bunch of carry-on luggage and the clerk has them weigh each one. One of their bags is over the allowed weight and the woman immediately charges the overage fee of $57. Damn. I was afraid of this. My bag is 8kg (18lb) - well over their 5kg (11lb) limit. I didn’t pay the fee online ahead of time because I wanted to see if I could slip by. This woman looks like a hard-ass though.
Luckily she is still helping the family when I get called to another clerk. This woman checks me in and actually asks me if I would like to switch my middle seats for aisle seats no charge. Sure! Then she has me place my backpack on the scale. The big red numbers flash 8kg. She looks at me. “Your bag is over. Are you checking any luggage that you could put some of the extra weight in?”
I shake my head. “No, this is all I have.”
She thinks for a minute. “Are you traveling with anyone?”
Again I shake my head and shrug, “Nope, just me.”
“We’re supposed to charge you for the overage…” She says, seemingly pained.
She looks at me. “Is there anything you can take out and hold?”
“Maybe I wear my camera around my neck?” I ask hopefully.
I pull my Sony A7 out and hang it around my neck. The bag is still over.
“Anything else?” She asks.
“Sure. Can you just carry that it your hand?”
“I guess so…” I pull out the laptop. We both look at the scale. Damn. Still just a bit over. Wow, I really don’t have that much left in there. These weight limitations are fucking strict.
The woman purses her lips, then reaches down to the backpack ostensibly to straighten it up as it was kind of slumping over. “I’m just going to straighten it up a bit…” As she does she lifts up slightly on the bag. The scale readout goes down to 5kg. She quickly hits a button on her terminal. “Perfect,” she says as she prints out my ticket and hands it to me. I thank her profusely and head on my way.
I have a lot of time to kill before my flight. Fortunately there is a bar right next to my gate. I order a beer and some fries with Old Bay seasoning (This is Baltimore after all). I get online. Still having not heard anything from my host in London I decide to book a hostel for the first couple of nights. Maybe during the first two days there I can find someone to host me for the last two.
After awhile a woman sits down next to me and orders some food. We begin talking and discover we are both headed to London on the same flight. I introduce myself. Her name is Natalie. She is from the States but apparently spent some time living in Peru and now works in DC. She is going to visit a friend in the Southern part of England.
We board the plane around 7pm. The flight is fairly smooth and uneventful except for one thing. To my left, across the aisle, is a young man, probably in his twenties. Next to him, in the window seat, is a fairly gaunt older woman. They are chatting for the first half of the flight. Everything seems pretty normal. At some point, maybe two hours in, I look over and the old woman is slumped over in a position that I know can not be comfortable. She is bent to her right, her forehead planted down on the arm rest. One thin, frail arm is strewn across her tray table. It looks very awkward and painful. She must be out cold. She is like this for at least two hours. Once the plane begins it's descent into Keflavik (I was flying WOW Airlines - an Icelandic Airline that always flies through Iceland), the flight attendants make their rounds, checking everyone’s seat backs and tray tables. One blonde and very Icelandic-looking flight attendant arrives at the old woman. She taps the woman on the shoulder to awaken her. No response. The attendant tries a little more forcefully to rouse the sleeping woman. Still no response at all. Finally she has the young man stand up. She gets in right next to the old woman and really shakes her. Still… no… response.
The stewardess looks concerned now. She checks for a pulse. She must find one because she looks relieved. She still decides to call for backup. Another flight attendant, a thin, brown haired gentleman, comes over. He really shakes this woman to wake her. The old woman finally comes to but looks really out of it. They ask her some questions. I can’t tell if she answers or not. They talk to her for a while, but they are speaking Icelandic so I can’t really get an idea of what’s going on. Then, in English, they ask the young man if she had been drinking. “Only two small drinks the whole flight,” he answers. As soon as the attendants are gone the woman slowly slumps back over, out cold. Everyone that sees this looks around at each other, trying to figure out what the hell is going on.
The stewardess returns and sees the woman passed out again. She shakes her and shakes her, finally calling for backup once more. This time the steward brings a bottle of oxygen with a mask. They finally wake her and request that she take some oxygen - it might help. She finally agrees. It does seem to help slightly.
They sit with her and talk to her for a long while. Finally they have another passenger who, from what I can gather, is a Medic, sit with the old woman until landing. He keeps her awake and helps escort her off the plane.
Once off the plane, for some reason this woman is left to her own devices - which apparently she has very little of. I’m walking behind her as she stumbles down the jetway looking like she is doped out of her mind (What is it with me and drugged-out old women on transatlantic flights?). I’m behind her when she reaches an escalator to head down to the first floor. I can tell this could turn out ugly so I get up close behind her. Sure enough as soon as she steps onto the moving stairs she begins to topple forward. I grab ahold of her. I say “I’ve got you,” but I don’t know if it even registers with her. I don’t let go until we reach the bottom.
Back on flat ground I figure there isn’t but so much this woman can do to injure herself so I leave her to head to my connecting flight. I run into Natalie again and we chat at the gate of our next flight. We talk about the old woman. Natalie wonders if she’ll be on this flight too. She jokes that the doped-up old lady will be sitting right next to me. I laugh. I wouldn’t be surprised.
Turns out the old woman is on our flight, but luckily her seat is not next to me. There is however some British guy who has spent the last month camping out in the wilds of Iceland. I think he is a bit unstable actually - not because of the camping in Iceland mind you - but just because of the way he was talking and acting when we landed in London. It’s actually kind of hard to explain. Fortunately he was asleep most of the flight so I am only subjected to his rantings for about twenty minutes before we exit the plane.
It's Saturday morning by now and I've been traveling for about 21 hours. I get to Passport Control. I figure this is going to be a breeze as was getting into the E.U. on my last trip. Boy am I wrong. After waiting in a very long line I get to the counter. The officer at the window looks at my passport and then starts asking me all kinds of questions. She asks how long I’m staying in London and where I’m headed after that. I say fours days and then Paris, Madrid, etc. I tell her of my plan to see the world. Shit, I may have said too much. She asks how I am getting to Paris. “Probably train,” I answer.
Perhaps it’s a red flag that I have not booked the train ticket yet. She starts asking me a ton of personal questions, the strangest of them being “Are you in a relationship with anyone?” What the hell business is that of Border Control? She finally tells me that she understands that I’m winging it with my travel but my plans are too vague. She places me in a holding area and goes to talk with her supervisor. Guess that’s what I get for being honest. Note to self: next time just lie, say “Oh, I’m headed back home in a couple weeks…” Way to go UK Border Control, way to re-enforce bad behavior.
About ten minutes later she returns and says she will let me through but I don’t get the normal stamp. I get a “Code 3” stamp. A warning. Great. Anyways, finally through Passport Control I grab a coffee at the first place I can find. I have been up way too long and I’m really starting to feel it.
I hop on the Gatwick Express, a train that takes about 30 minutes to get into Victoria Station. There I grab the Underground into Willesden Green and check into my hostel. I manage to get a small nap in before hunting down some dinner. I eat at the Queensbury Kitchen a couple of blocks away. That’s about all I’m going to see of London tonight. I need sleep.
Sleep I do get, but it is very intermittent. The room is hot as hell even though it’s pretty chilly outside. There’s no fan either. Also it must be right next to the elevator machine room because, in addition to the incredibly loud unsynchronized snoring of my two room-mates, there is a random, low, metallic groan every thirty seconds or so. Shit, it’s going to be a long night.
On Sunday I take the Underground to the London Bridge station and just wander around with my camera. Despite what I figured London weather to be like this time of year, it’s a very nice day. The sun even breaks through the clouds periodically.
The next day I still have no luck with couch-surfing hosts so I book another two nights at a hostel. A different one this time. I go check in. It is so much nicer than the first one: small, only seven rooms in the whole building, quiet, and the staff is super friendly. It’s at Mile End, in the East End of London, which I find to be a much cooler neighborhood than Willesden Green. I eat at a restaurant a couple blocks away called the Greedy Cow. I have a Lamb burger with curry and topped with mango chutney. Amazing.
That evening I go out to see London at night. Exiting the Westminster station, I emerge from the underground and see Big Ben immediately. I snap some photos and head on. I walk over to see the London Eye and then stroll along the South Bank of the Thames. Again the weather is so much more comfortable than I would have thought for an October evening in London. The city is gorgeous all lit up at night. There are people walking up and down, kids skateboarding, couples embracing, families strolling along, everyone enjoying the autumn night and the vibes of tranquil humanity that float in on it. This was another one of those moments for me. One of those moments where I’m reminded of why I’m doing this…