Wednesday, May 19, 2010

London 2003 - Getting There, part 1

How does one launch into a very personal and overly detailed (“personal” for me meaning overly detailed, since that’s my personality) travel narrative with an interesting bang – the kind of bang writing experts say you need? My personality makes me want to laboriously scribe all whens and wheres of the trip’s start, instead of following the more dramatic convention of first describing me mid-trip, plunked down in some embarrassing or dangerous location.

In the case of my London trip, I would have to choose between scenes like my tipsy bar evening writing postcards and trying to remember how to spell words of more than two syllables, or maybe trying to eat an un-tasty Cornish pasty (“pasty” does not rhyme with “tasty,” as I learned) that was so hot it burned my mouth... Are these sorts of descriptions, used to start the narrative, really any better than the boring “How I got there” details?

Of course I feel compelled to start out by saying I went with a friend – I think I’m uncomfortable that people might think I made such a glamorous (at first breath, it sounds glamorous, although the reality was more mundane and Sarah-like) trip on my own, without majorly contributing circumstances. My friend K. goes to London several times a year on business, and I had fake-suavely told her (pretending I wouldn’t have to jump a high stack of anxiety hurdles in order to make such a trip) that I might go with her sometime, she should keep me informed of her schedule. In early January she told me about a trip a couple of weeks away, offering to share her company-paid hotel room, and timing caught me in a weak moment of January boredom and post-Christmas claustrophobia/angst – with some seriousness and intent, I checked with Craig, and surprisingly, instead of telling me to save my money for something he and I could do together, he suggested I go ahead and investigate airfares.

And since people will wonder why my husband didn’t go and, according to the thoughts of some of my more backward relatives, will wonder how he allowed me to go without him, I must early-on mention the Craig angle of things: I have trained Craig to operate on a marital “point system,” and I think he had a good idea of how many points he could get by saying “yes” to me on this. We had talked in theoretical terms about going to Europe together, but my first choice was England and his was Germany, and we couldn’t quite figure out how to compromise on a destination – or to budget for a two-person trip. Actually, I had occasionally fantasized about going as a single member of a tour group when Craig sounded especially Ameri-centric in his rants about why he did not want to visit the rude, ungrateful French (who didn’t appreciate what we did for them in WWII) and why he saw no need to go to countries where people smelled bad – after his 2002 trip to see his cousin in Sydney, his outlook couldn’t help but become more global regarding travel, but he still drew a line around his requirements for Ameri-gratitude and personal hygiene.

I also find it important and think it cute to mention a physiological reason why I said “yes” to the trip: I had a medical procedure (routine but invasive) that required anesthesia the day before K. invited me and although the procedure’s findings were normal, I didn’t feel normal for the next couple of days but rather staring-through-muddy-waterish from the drugs, a little out-of-bodyish, and I guess it was easier to think I could overcome my fear of flying when I was feeling like somebody else.

Attractive off-season airfares propelled me further, and I felt savvy for figuring out that it was cheaper, and more convenient laundry-wise, if I left Saturday and returned Friday. I was increasingly failing at keeping my pre-fear dread (pre-dread fear?) of flying at bay, but I kept on with these plans, hoping that outward circumstances would move me along. If I had already bought a ticket, I would feel forced to get on the plane despite my terror. My work responsibilities hadn’t slowed the momentum either – the first Monday of my trip was conveniently a holiday and my boss immediately said that I should feel free to take advantage of this terrific multicultural opportunity, kindly not reminding me that I was a new employee and had little accrued vacation time.

K. laughed when I told her how supportive and pleased Dallas coworkers and friends had been about my going, saying “London is a big deal for people in Dallas…it’s not a big deal in New York, people from here go there all the time.” She has lived in New York, and been gone from Dallas, long enough that I don’t find it too patronizing for her to say things like this. Her New York orientation has also slanted her take on the London weather – she said it was “pleasantly warm,” which (after purchasing my ticket, and only then looking at Yahoo weather) I realized meant only warmer than New York, i.e. 40s as a high. She had had an easy time convincing me about the weather because on the London soap opera East Enders (said to have been one of Princess Di’s favorite shows, if that’s a recommendation) that I watch on BBC America on Saturdays, the weather (on the show’s outdoor stage) looked pleasantly breezy but far from frigid. I knew the BBC America broadcasts were delayed several weeks from the filming but seeing characters wear only light coats and jackets while I was watching the show in December and January was still persuasive.

As with the weather, K. used New York as her frame of reference for London prices, saying London restaurant prices (meals etc.) were even higher than in NY. I was appropriately frightened but intrigued on hearing this, figuring that I could find some kind of cheap snack food if necessary – and big-picture, I had always wanted to see Europe and I figured this trip was probably worth going into some degree of debt.

When I felt I had weighed enough options/concerns and been whipped around enough by my anxieties, I officially committed to going and decided I would buy my ticket online that day to lock in the price (and hope that my formalized commitment to this decision would allow my energies to settle toward accomplishing a goal of travel sanity). This decision brought a brief calm but I still had to get a confirmation on dates and other details from K. – we didn’t connect until after work, so in order to meet my self-imposed anxiety-accommodating deadline, I had to buy the ticket on our home computer.

Our computer has such a slow connection that even on a normal day when I have no transatlantic plans, watching the almost motionless, graphically straining screen makes my nerves raw. I wasn’t just nervous about the ticket’s lack of refundability, I was also hyper-aware about the thought of spending time alone in Europe (I would be staying a day or two after K. left and I would arrive before she did) and of course the fearful thoughts of the flight itself had not dissipated a bit. I felt almost physically shaky when I typed in my name as the passenger – this wasn’t my first online ticket but the experience felt intimidatingly uncharted, as if I saw vast, dark, churning ocean waters behind the computer screen where I was entering my travel details.

Not quite jokingly, I wished I had the meditative skill to "wish”/metaphysically move myself to London without flying over the ocean. Purchasing my ticket as an external catalyst felt psychologically proactive but I continued to experience anxiety undertows – such as waking in the middle of the night with to-do lists scrolling across my consciousness and a racing pulse. I knew my pulse was racing because I checked it a couple of times with a blood pressure cuff and then verified through worried web research that the number was at least a little high. Also, my teeth became very temperature-sensitive, which I was pretty sure meant I was grinding them in my sleep during this time of pre-trip trauma.

Usually before a trip I accidentally channel-surf into TV movies about real-life airplane crashes (there seem to be a lot of them, usually with stars like Donna Mills or Shelly Hack, who for some reason are late 20th century casting of choice for flight attendants) – I managed to avoid that this time, but one night I did happen across a computer simulation of what “A plane crash on Mars” would be like. I learned that if a plane tried to fly on Mars it would inevitably crash (in boiling red clouds) because the atmosphere isn’t conducive to flight – this was a Discovery channel show that I think was meant to discuss Mars and not the safety of air flight. I knew that a plane going down on a strict vertical in computer-generated red clouds and high winds was a ridiculous image to keep in mind when contemplating a North American flight, but I had trouble dismissing it.

For anxiety variety, I worried about things such as whether I should wear my newer pair of Payless clunky fake-suede black shoes or my older pair. They were identical models but the older pair was unattractively stretched and creased – however, I had a strong premonition that the newer pair would give me blisters. I showed them both to Craig, asking, “Do the old ones look OK?” and he immediately said he couldn’t tell the difference – but I’m pretty sure that in an anxiety management situation like this he goes more with my tone of voice and the look on my face than the item I’m asking his opinion about.

K. was honest about how busy she would be while I was there and tried to be cooperative about her schedule and, but I continued to worry about my arriving before she did (me on Sunday, she on Monday a.m.) and whether the hotel would let nonpaying-me into her room. My mood continued to swing between the fairly positive, at least by my standards: “I’m going to a place I have always wanted to go!” (which it truly was, since I considered London my #1 travel destination) and the certifiably anxious: “K. hasn’t answered my email yet, maybe she hasn’t given the hotel my name yet, maybe the hotel won’t let me in her room, and the hotel is too expensive for me to get my own room!!!”

A few days before departure, K. announced she was leaving London on Thursday, not Friday (Friday being my departure day) to go to Paris and asked if I wanted to come to Paris and somehow find my way back to London for my departing flight. Despite Paris being another city on my fantasy-travel list, I could feel even the prospect of this rushed mini-trip pushing me toward the anxiety precipice, so I immediately said no. I had already researched hotels before I knew she would be able to confirm the room for her early arrival Monday (meaning it could also accommodate my Sunday arrival) and said I would change to one of them on Thursday.

I was a little frustrated though because I had been fantasizing about taking an all-day tour called “Edinburgh in a Day” on Thursday which started at 6:30 and ended at “22:16”, meaning an after-10 pm return at a train station. This schedule wouldn’t combine well with checking out of one hotel and getting to another, dealing with transportation, check-in and checkout times, hotel luggage storage, etc. I wasn’t sure which other days I could do Edinburgh because I didn’t know how tired I’d be after I arrived and also thought that since I was dealing with tour operators I had found on the Internet, I should probably prebook/prepay only one tour in advance and see how that went before confirming more of them. Intellectually, I knew I could reshuffle my other days’ plans (which were all tentative anyway) but despite having at least a limited focus on the fact that being on my own so much meant I could be the leader of my own day, chooser of my own schedule, I kept experiencing a control-freak panic over not being able to confirm everything in advance. In fact, the level of my anxiety over this was giving me a pretty strong impression that I was displacing my trip concerns from flying onto other aspects of the travel plans.

I had to acknowledge that my pre-trip research had gotten a bit frantic and anal-loopish as I went back and forth an embarrassing number of times between discount sites and London maps, trying to guarantee (with no surprise and no last-minute changes) that I would be in an area where I could walk to sights and making sure the hotel was big enough to provide a private bathroom and other American-style amenities such as phone and TV – it was maddening that the discount sites wouldn’t give hotel phone numbers (because of course they wanted you to book through them) and gave otherwise limited information on addresses.

I emailed one site with a question on ground transportation from the airport and got a return email that didn’t answer my question and more disturbingly, was signed by someone at a hotel reservations center in Singapore. At another point I had dizzyingly clicked back and forth between several hotels but despite my eye inertia, I was almost positive that I had seen sample hotel room photos for two different hotels that were identical in the pattern of their pale chintzy bedspreads, the dark headboards and small curtained windows, in absolutely every detail. Both hotels had the exact same photos? Trying to investigate this deception, I hit the back arrow and returned to an Internet hotel map whose price-organized links I had been clicking from – I remained convinced that something bogus was going on with the photos but I couldn’t recreate the same images when I clicked on what I thought were the same links.

In any case, I had pretty much decided on what seemed to be a more modern, or at least bigger hotel (“Europe’s largest independent hotel [whatever that meant] with 700 bedrooms”) and the duplicate photos were from smaller places where I felt my private access to a bathroom was in question anyway.

I did receive a response to my email from Dukes Hotel, where K. had made her business reservation, confirming that I could store my bags with them if I arrived before check-in time. Dukes didn’t come out and say “We’ll let you in your friend’s room before she arrives” but more importantly, they didn’t respond with confusion or negativity to hearing my name, so I felt better about the hotel aspect – however, who knew if the person at the desk when I arrived would be savvy on all my arrangements, so I felt that I still had quite a bit to worry about.

I had wanted to use American Airlines for this trip to beef up my miles with them, and Gatwick is the only London airport where American flies direct. I saw no reason I should subject myself to a plane change, meaning a longer flight, if I didn’t have to – and since I had such a strong concern about being able to drag myself onto the plane in Dallas, it didn’t seem wise to plan a transfer. Additionally, I targeted only flights that would give me at least one weekend day at home at each end of the trip. This worked out well fare-wise, and it really helped my peace of mind to know that if I wasn’t leaving until the evening of Saturday the 18th, I could run errands, do laundry and pack that same day. [Yes, I know this blog post mentions laundry several times but as I remember it, the laundry planning was a calming thing for me.]

Despite this intellectual affirmation I still had a nightmare two nights before the trip that I was late for my flight and had nothing packed, and I still set my alarm for 7 a.m. on Saturday in case by some mysterious relaxation of pre-trip tension I overslept and my obsessive-lengthy packing consequently ran too close to my 7:10 pm flight time.

So now my intro has gotten the reader to trip departure day, which will presumably be the start of more interesting reading, although since I’m the writer, the narrative can’t help but be told in continued overly detailed style. My desire, and to be cornily honest, my mission, is to capture all details for my reader. I want the reader to be/feel they are on the trip with me, not just skimming through artsily described “wow” highlights and silly-me incidents of clutziness.

Probably there are good reasons that travel writers leave out all but the most resonant details, but I’m firm that my mission requires me to include even the mundane stuff. Experiencing, retaining and analyzing details is how I live, and how I want to write. Ahem...

Despite my fears of oversleeping, I did wake up before 7 – I was totally bright-eyed and my nerves were running at a high pitch before my alarm even went off. I got my laundry, packing and other domestic tasks regarding our dogs, my bills, etc. handled by noon and Craig and I even had time to see an early afternoon showing of “Narc,” with Ray Liotta and Jason Patric (Patric being an actor whose major claim to fame, as far as I knew, was running off with Julia Roberts three days before her 1991 wedding to Kiefer Sutherland). The plot-murkiness and violence of this movie forced a pleasing involvement of my mental faculties (pulling my thoughts away from images of the Atlantic churning beneath my frail plane), and with the bonus of knowing that I had two suitcases of clean clothes packed and ready at home, I was able to focus on the movie to a surprising degree.

Despite his personally liking to cut things close (he considers sitting in a waiting room in anticipation of boarding time to be a colossal waste), Craig got me to the airport by the airline specified early time although he still didn’t quite believe what American had told me, that for international flights you couldn’t check in curbside. I admit I kind of liked the feeling that I knew sophisticated international travel info, such as this important check-in info, that he didn’t understand.

Our parting was a little bittersweet in a marital/protective way – despite my anxiousness to get this trip underway (and end this anxiety) and his desire to get rid of prickly-nervous me, we were very aware that we would miss each other, and he wasn’t completely convinced I could navigate the start of the trip alone. He doesn’t trust me when I take Ambien, maintaining (exaggeratedly, in my opinion) that when he’s traveled with me and I’ve taken it, I stare into space and all but drool.

My doctor is very conservative and doles out this very small dose of a relatively mild sleeping aid only when I insist to her nurse that I have already purchased an airline ticket and am really going on a trip. The nurse always asks for details, “And how many hours will you be on the plane?” For this trip’s prescription, I emphasized that I was going on “an international round trip” but didn’t specify the actual destination of London – most people, even those in Texas, know that London is a fairly accessible part of Europe and my doctor might have shaved off some milligrams.

Somewhere (not real close to the top) in my layers of anxiety/excitement there was “good excitement,” because I did want to make this trip, but the good stuff was mingled with a superstitious fear of disaster. The disaster fear seemed to be some kind of Puritanical, almost-religious view (odd considering my moderate Methodist upbringing) that I come up with in times of stress, where I have the thought that a pleasure trip might meet with disaster because of its self-indulgent (at least, far from selfless) aspects. This stringent line of thought would probably only be satisfied by a trip that was something like a Red Cross/humanitarian type mission, whereas the only conceivable way my London trip might be seen as of benefit to any of mankind other than my selfish self would be that my not going would disappoint K.

I was so grateful that Craig got me to the airport at a fairly early time, because the check-in line at the ticket counter took forever. I couldn’t figure out why it was so slow – it took me less than 2-3 minutes to do everything, so I have no idea what those other passengers were doing at the counter for so long and what crackpot questions or issues they had come up with. I started out fairly near the front line barrier but within a few minutes the line of people behind me got very long. I thought I felt relatively sane, even this close to my major flight over the deep, freezing cold ocean, but I noticed that I kept staring at a bandaid on the floor – this behavior didn’t make sense except as obsessive behavior because the bandaid wasn’t all that disgusting (didn’t have noticeable blood on it) and it was to the side of the people path, so I didn’t really need the constant reminders I was giving myself to avoid stepping on it. I also used a lot of nervous energy staring/glaring at a chubby black lady in very tight stretch pants who I first thought had cut into the line but then realized had just rejoined the rest of her family – there’s nothing like getting annoyed by other people to serve as a distraction.

After I made it through the check-in, baggage screen and gate security process, I did feel a little more relaxed but still had a somewhat obsessive determination to change some dollars at the airport – I was planning to take a train from Gatwick to London but I wanted to be sure I had British pounds in case for some anxious/logistical/apocalyptical reason I ended up taking a cab to London, which my Internet research told me would take 80-90 minutes and cost £50-60 pounds, with the current exchange rate being approximately 1.6 dollars per pound.

I had only just discovered that Britain does not use the Eurodollar like I thought they did, and felt that my not having known before was an example of how Americans are really nation-centric or more specifically, how we lump together news and happenings about the European countries. Apparently there has been significant controversy over the Euro in Britain, but despite Tony Blair’s strong advocacy, the Brits have said “no” (although Ireland did adopt the Euro). I thought Internet research would further clarify British currency for me but although I read that there were 1 penny, 2 pence, 5, 10, 20 and 50 pence coins, also a pound coin and two pound coins, with paper notes available in 5 pounds, 10, 20, and 50, I couldn’t find pictures since pictures of actual currency are considered a violation of something-or-other. I stupidly (or at least, with American-centric conceit) thought it sounded simple enough – meaning, close enough to American dollars – that I should have no problem.

Since I had 200 American dollars and wanted to get at least 100 pounds before landing in London, I walked up to the Thomas Cook desk at DFW thinking I knew what I was doing, telling myself this was a different scenario from when we went to Acapulco and my mother-in-law browbeat us not to change dollars in the U.S. but to wait until we got to Mexico. In true stupid-tourist style, I shoved my dollars through the window without even looking at the posted rate, but as soon as the counter person began counting out my money, I felt uneasy – with a Thomas Cook fee and a less-than-bank rate this was quite a suck-down of my $200.

However, I rationalized that I needed to get used to my dollars not buying much of what I might have liked them to and anyway, my time of worries and concerns was drawing to an end. After a pre-trip snack (for which I had already spied a McDonald’s, just the sodium addition I needed after 2-3 Dr Peppers that day and movie popcorn), it would be almost time to take my Ambien – I could feel myself regarding this event with the schedule importance of a doctor appointment but a lot more joyful anticipation. The McDonald’s food would be my early dinner, and things were feeling more and more like evening, or twilight – or metaphorically, shrinking horizons and increasing darkness. I was about to take a sleeping pill…

I had had frustrations on previous flights that Ambien wasn’t “strong” enough (basically, I would like to go unconscious until the plane arrives at the arrival gate) but it does have some effect and a couple of trips previously, I had decided that since combining Ambien with alcohol didn’t lay me too low (despite the pill bottle warning), I would continue to do that. Despite a small glitch when my doctor’s office had accidentally called in one pill for the entire round trip, they were quite cooperative – I had obtained four pills for my 9 hours out and 10 hours back. A friend of Craig’s and mine who has taken Ambien during an emotionally difficult time stated, “It clears your mind so you can sleep.” It doesn’t necessarily put me to sleep but it slows my anxious mental churning to one track, which I can divert with reading or happy thoughts, and on evening flights it has occasionally helped me at least briefly shut my eyes. Our friend’s description also sheds light on how I can focus on one paragraph of a book (sometimes, I admit, with what is probably a tipsy smile on my lips) for much longer than it would normally take me to read that same paragraph – I probably average a half hour per page under peak Ambien conditions.

Considering that I could spend so long on just one page I brought way too many books (four new paperbacks) for my 5-day trip, but in my view the most nightmarish trip is the kind where one runs out of books. I won’t go into my buried-alive teenage experience of visiting my stepmother’s family with only 2-3 sub-par library books as escape from the Nebraska winter – a more recent example would be my getting deeply into a new health food cookbook during a flight that was fairly turbulent and provided nothing better to read. I almost always buy a People magazine in the terminal too – sober, the magazine’s content is too flimsy to distract me from the flight’s horrors, but on Ambien, People with its dumbed-down articles and highly recognizable celebrities is good fodder for my drugged brain. If given a quiz on the stories I’d read in People while on Ambien, I would probably fail it – I’ve experimentally flipped back through the pages at the end of a flight and been unable to remember whether I actually read this piece on…Madonna, Janet or Marky Mark. That isn’t important though because my life wouldn’t be changed whether I did or didn’t absorb that content and I could always reread the thing, anyway. However, today I might have passed the People exam, because I finished most of it during the pre-flight wait before the Ambien really took hold.

1 comment:

Library Lady said...

I love/enjoy details, too, so your posts are always a great read. Knowing you also makes reading the posts fun.

Appreciated the line about the doctor "shaving off milligrams" of your meds! I have Xanax for our trip, but I need them all.
:-) You can, if you want, take a lick or two off of one of them. Or sniff the bottle!

I can see recurring themes in your writing. Interesting. And you have succeeded if your mission is to have the reader right along with you on the trip. I am there.