Sunday, February 21, 2016

Getting There Is Half the Fun (London 2016, Part 1)

I consider myself a fairly experienced traveler. As of the end of this week, I've flown between the West Coast of the United States (usually San Francisco, but one notable exception of a flight to Seattle) and London ten times. I've seen a good chunk of my own country, and I've had the fortune to see a few great places in Europe.

That said, international travel has changed in the last eleven years, since I flew back from England to resume being a full-time American.

For starters, I have one tool I didn't have in 2004-2005, though everyone else did: a cell phone. I didn't take one to England, didn't have one while there, and only got my first permanent, take-it-with-you-everywhere cell phone on my return in August 2005. Since then, I haven't been without. Then I got my first smart phone in 2012, and no trip will ever be the same.

Another way international travel is changed is that more and more pieces of it are "technologically advanced." Online check-in, passport scanning, body scanning (*shudder*), etc. So much personal information about me comes up with one swipe of my passport, that the Customs Agent at London Heathrow would have known if I was lying when she asked if I'd been to England before, simply because the information that yes, I was, was right before her on a computer screen.

For all my confusion at some of the new security measures, I have found that maintaining good humor through the process of traveling goes a long way--a very long way--in making things easier for me. No matter how tired I felt after a ten-hour overnight flight with no sleep, no matter how hungry I was, and how badly I needed a loo, I was determined to be pleasant and somewhat coherent at UK Border Control.

I can't promise I wasn't slurring my speech, however.

Travel isn't exactly fun (the title to this blog post is me at my sarcastic best)--at least, the getting there isn't. Of course when I arrived in London, everything was incredible, but there is nothing pleasurable about hauling baggage, waiting in line for security wearing socks while being stared at, or worrying that at any moment I might drop my passport, my boarding pass, my debit card, my phone...

Hey, I don't call myself The Anxious Traveler for nothing.

The adventure started at 8:00 on Saturday morning, as Dad and I waited at the Rocklin Amtrak station for the 8:33 Capitol Corridor train. I was pretty much bouncing with excitement for my long-overdue return to England, and Dad was his usual calm self. We chatted about my plans for the week, I checked my purse--again--for my important papers, cards, camera, and phone, and finally, the train rolled up and Dad walked back to the car, waving at me with a big smile as I hauled my suitcase on board and settled in for my journey.

From the train, a small church in Rocklin.

Morning fog clinging to the North Bay.

By 11:00, I was alighting in Emeryville, where I was to meet Summer for a quick lunch and a ride to the BART station (I could have reached BART from Amtrak but Summer and I wanted a bit of a catch-up and this was the perfect opportunity).

We had lunch and did a quick shopping run--she wanted to check Old Navy and I bought a coin purse for my trip and some sunglasses at Charming Charlie--before heading to the Rockridge BART station where I would catch a direct train to San Francisco International (SFO).

As we drove along, I found a cute sign picture. 

At the BART station. Thank you, Summer!

Waiting for BART, with San Francisco behind me, lost in
the glare of the sun.
I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say I made it to the airport in about an hour, dropped my bags in quickly (online check-in is genius), and made it through security with minimal fuss--even making one TSA agent chuckle.

"Where are your shoes?" she asked me.

"They're in this tray, under my coat..."

"They have to be out," she told me, and the man behind me. "I know," she added with a smile, "It's weird."

"Hey, what's weird is that I'm about to get in a tin can and hurtle through the air to Europe," I replied, earning a nod and a chuckle.

Otherwise, I made it through security without a problem, even avoiding the full-body scan by being directed through a simple metal detector.

The aftermath--putting one mini laptop back in my backpack,
getting my shoes and FitBit back on, and getting my rather
cumbersome (but dead useful) handbag situated on my body.
The most notable part of the next couple of hours was that I had to buy a t-shirt at an airport shop because my decision to wear a pink sweater was foolish for two reasons:

  1. It got black crud all over it from hugging the crumbling case for my mini laptop, and,
  2. I was already sweating and couldn't fathom sitting for several hours in a sweater if I was this warm now.
The thing about flying is that you rush to get to the airport and sweat your bags through check-in, sweat yourself through security, and then you...wait. Meanwhile, the airline is happy to have your bags for loading and security wasn't nearly as bad as you thought it would be, and now you have two hours to just...wait. And wait some more.

If you're me, that means poking into the shops until they're no longer interesting (about ten minutes), sitting for ten minutes, reading for ten minutes, using the ladies for five minutes, debating whether to get some food for ten minutes, deciding not to, watching planes take off and land, and taking a few pictures of your lucky rubber duck.

Then finding you still have an hour or so, but hey, they're going to start pre-boarding soon.

I remember taking a picture of this very sculpture in January
1999, when I was waiting for a Virgin Atlantic flight to London

Lovely day for a trans-Atlantic flight.
One of the first pics I took with my camera, a nice little close-up detail of my
home for the next eleven or so hours.

Cali Swimmy has traveled, but this was his first international
flight, and he was extremely excied.

Gate A5, and the marvelous staff of Virgin Atlantic. I never had
one rude person, on either side of the Atlantic.
 Finally, it was time to board, and suddenly, I was surrounded by British accents. Flight attendants with various regional accents (I could swear that the one who first greeted me as I stepped on the plane was from Essex), fellow passengers with that familiar lilt. I couldn't keep the huge cheesy grin off my face. After months of anticipation and planning, now my adventure was well and truly starting.

Yes, I Instagrammed the jetway. 

At my seat, with the essentials. 

It had to be done. This was my last Instagrammed picture
before putting my phone into flight mode.
The flight itself was a breeze--for being ten hours long, that is. Take-off was uneventful, and though there was some definite turbulence that could be described as "mildly violent," we eventually lost that and had a nice tail wind for most of the trip.

Our very British captain had me chuckling quietly when he came over the intercom to say, "Ladies and gentlemen, I do apologize for the turbulence...we tried going to another altitude but we just can't seem to get away from the storms out there. Hopefully soon we'll be through it, but again, I do apologize for the discomfort and will keep the seat belt sign on for your safety until we are through it."

Only a British pilot would apologize for something so wholly out of his control.

I amused myself at first by taking a few iPhone pictures out the window of my beloved home state, and grinning foolishly at it as I flew away towards my other home.

You can vaguely make out San Francisco.

Flying over the low Coastal ranges towards the Delta.

The Delta
I could blog for days about how long the flight was, how uncomfortable airplane seats are, and the woman next to me who tossed and turned every two minutes or so for ten bloody hours, invading my personal space bubble. I could moan about how I got not one wink of sleep. Instead, I'll share my absolute giddy joy as the "night" part of our flight ended and the sunshine outside my window indicated that my long-overdue return to England was near.

My first glimpse of that lovely island.

By this point, I was just grinning and trying not to cry.

Heathrow is very near Windsor (I missed a glimpse of
the castle but apparently it was visible from my side of
the plane) and Eton--this waterway was filled with tiny
teams of rowers, presumably from Eton.

I love this shot.
 Then suddenly, we were in serious descent mode and the ground was getting closer and closer. Tears started leaking from my eyes and I struggled not to giggle out loud. I was glued to the window...and overwhelmed with joy to be back in England.

The very moment we touched down. 
Hello, London.

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