Eight hours of flying plus a six-hour jump into the future thanks to the time change brought the Reverend Mother, Mall Diva, Tiger Lilly and myself into Gatwick Airport early on Sunday morning. Not much to see from the airplane window but tarmac and other airplanes that could have been in any airport in the world. It certainly smelled like an airport. The captain said it was London, however, and since they already had our money it was best to believe him.
Getting off of the airplane I saw some funny spellings of familiar words, but it only took a few moments before we could make out that most British of institutions: “the Queue”. It took us over an hour to make our way down a hall, around a corner and through a long series of turns as we criss-crossed a large room, channeled by black strips of fabric as we awaited our interview with the immigration officer. My carry-on sized wheely bag and one small shoulder tote — what I had thought constituted “traveling light” — soon made me feel like Marley’s ghost. Finally we were in front of the person who would let us in or send us back. It was all very reminiscent of the Bridge of Death scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see:”
“What are your names?”
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
“What is your favorite color?”
Well, we all got in, but then we had to make two circuits around the baggage claim area because it had taken so long to get there that the videoscreens no longer showed at which carousel our baggage had been dropped. Then it was off to purchase train tickets to get into London, at a counter where the attendant’s credit-card reading machine was balky. Finally, though, we were on our way in an overcrowded train car, our bags on and under our laps. Emerging from the station and a tunnel we finally saw this new land to which we had committed ourselves. Gray, a bit grimy, but the rowhouses and architecture were distinctly British.
Arriving at Victoria Station we quickly fortified ourselves with caffeine and started to make plans for the afternoon. Except for some brief intervals of semi-consciousness on the flight some of us had been up for 24 hours by that time but we resisted the urge to find the B&B where we had reservations and crash. We wanted to get on the local schedule so we planned to check our bags for the afternoon and do some sightseeing. Bag-checking, however, runs you 6 quid per bag, with the exchange rate nearly two dollars per pound. Now I know where the British expression, “Oi!” comes from. Another thing we noticed, as we clutched our now-empty paper coffee-cups: no trashcans, or dustbins as they’re called here. At first I couldn’t believe it, but after steadily surveying the perimeter of the station there was no doubt – and no dustbins. There also wasn’t any trash laying around on the ground. Do people eat there trash here? What is the meaning of this mystery?
The answer was soon revealed when we got our first example of the security-consciousness of this country. I met up with a uniformed officer and asked where to find a couple of things, including a dustbin. “Oh, you’ll not find any dustbins around here, I imagine,” he said. “Security you know.”
Ah, culture shift. The lightbulb finally went on in my head: dustbins are just too nifty a place for bad guys to leave bombs, and I’m sure it was a lesson hard-learned. We finally found a place to dispose of our cups and also decided to go to the B&B first thing after all to drop our bags rather than pay the ransom for leaving them. After that we managed a little sight-seeing in central London, including passing by the barracks and parade-ground of the Queens Life Guards. Believe me, no matter how tired you are, it gets your attention when someone wearing a shiny helmet and carrying a sabre steps out from a box and stamps his feet next to you. We also stopped in Trafalgar Square where we found a wonderful public restroom. While we paused there I remembered my previous trips to London back in 1979 when I had spent a semester at nearby Reading University. Then Trafalgar Square had been so full of pigeons that they looked like a moving carpet. Now there was nary a pigeon in sight. How, in a land that recently banned fox hunting, had they dealt with these creatures? This answer, too, would come, but not on this day.
After a few sights we felt as if we’d done all we could, and it was time for supper and, at long last, bed. Returning to the residential neighborhood where we have our room we saw a street lined with ethnic restaurants. Here on our first night in England, what would we have to eat? Fish and chips? Bangers and mash? Yorkshire pudding or Welsh rarebit? No, there was an Italian restaurant, run by a family of real Italians. We went in and the hostess walked us back to our table, the Mall Diva in front of our family. One of the pizza cooks, a young and virile man, noticed her and quickly straightened his shoulders, smiled ever-so-boldy and tried to make eye-contact. Mall Diva was totally unaware of his attention, but that’s not to say it went unnoticed. Eye-contact he sought, and eye-contact he received, but from me. His smile went away, and with a Gallic shrug of his shoulders he went back to his pies. Oh yes, I can hardly wait until we get to Tuscany later this week. (The food was great, by the way).
Oh well, it had been a long day and we were literally and figuratively ready to crash. We fell into our beds; in my case 33 hours after I had left my own. Tomorrow we’d take on the city but with a little less grit in our eyes.
Next: More photos, fewer words, the fate of the pigeons, and why we were asked to leave the Tower of London. Or, maybe, something from the Mall Diva.