The last European post


The last day in London, I awoke at about 0700, anxious to get going for the day. I had went to bed after writing my last blog update at about 0200, so I didn’t manage to get a whole lot of sleep. I remember watching Big Bang Theory and charging my iPod for the next day which proved to be absolutely crucial.

Thankfully both the Victoria and City lines were fully operational. During the weekend, The Underground (tube, subway) go through engineering works and are often shut at different times. This worried me, because I had the dead hooker case to contend with and I really didn’t want to figure out how to get that thing on and off buses and try to get all the way out to Heathrow from Zone 3.

It was a beautiful day when I left. Isn’t that how it goes?

My arm surged as I dragged the dead hooker bag along the half mile to the Blackhorse underground station. Never again will I bring luggage that big to a place where I’m making multiple journeys. That bag is only now applicable to situations where I need to travel to one place for more than 7 days…which probably won’t happen much.

You can go anywhere with a pair of jeans, enough changes of underwear and a few pairs of warm socks. I threw in a couple of thermals and some shirts into that equation as well. I did bring hiking boots, which I didn’t use…but may or may not be useful for different situations. In the end, I could have easily subtracted half of that and used the rolling duffel that I use for work often.

I also realized that ATMs are a good way to go…my bank simply charged the conversion rate and probably a small percentage. I had brought a pile of US cash that came right back with me as I never ended up changing it.

Credit cards are a thing to be advised about, though. Europe uses “chip and pin” for everything, which is a smartcard that had the credit card details encrypted against a pin number. Most merchants have a bluetooth-enabled handheld that the user inserts their card into and types in a pin and changes the amount if necessary. Therefore, all the processing is done with no signature and often at the dinner table or where the service is being provided.

America is way behind on the “chip and pin” thing.

It is so much more useful to have no signature and use the pin instead. Plus the added layer of keeping your card in front of you is nice. All merchants can still take swipe cards, but most of them haven’t swiped one in a long while. Therefore, you’ll want to mention if you take a credit card into any merchant, that has to be swiped and signed for. I would often joke with a waitress or waiter and hand them the card saying, “here is my inferior American credit card that needs to be swiped.”

Most ticket collection machines won’t allow swipe cards after a certain dollar amount because of the required signature. Almost all of them won’t allow it at all. Therefore, if you need underground travel cards or rail tickets you should find the nearest “Assistance” booth and work with them directly. Every where I went this was really easy to deal with. Simply state where you need to go and ask them for help. In England it was an especially easy process.

Oyster cards are a great way to go, as well. This is more applicable if you’re going to be using public transit a lot in England. You can pick them up from a lot of different stores and convenience shops around London and places like Tescos Express. You prepay the card and can return it, getting your money back when you’re done. I didn’t go end up going this route because I didn’t need the tube that much as I was staying in London central. I would have saved myself a few quid if I would bothered though.

Oyster cards use a technology that is like, and may possibly be RFID. You simply pass the card by the Oyster reader at the turnstyles in and out of the tube or on the buses. It subtracts the appropriate cost from the card and looks at where you exited. So, if you went into a station in Zone 1 and exited in Zone 2 you’d be charged for a Zone 1-2 one-way travel. Every Londonhead seemed to have one, and they are quite a bit faster than travel cards and incredibly versatile. I would imagine they’ve done this to make public transit easier and quicker and to give an incentive for people not to use ticket collection machines all the time, but rather pre-pay their Oyster card.

Anyway, before I get too far off topic, I picked up a travel card and headed to London Paddington Station to pick up the Heathrow Express train. You can get to Heathrow using an all-zones travelcard but you have to make a ton of stops on the way. The Heathrow Express train goes straight to central and you can connect to Terminal 4 by taking the Heathrow Connect train which stops frequently.

I got to Heathrow with way, way too much time. I think I made it through all the underground and train connections and into the terminal I needed at about 1030 for a 1355 flight. I grabbed a bite to eat and sat watching planes for a while. I spotted an Airbus A380 Emirates livery taxiing to a gate across the terminal.

What an amazing plane. With passenger capabilities between 525 and 853, the Airbus A380 taxis down the tarmac like a fat man swaggering around Old Country Buffet in search of a good seat that will allow plenty of elbow room while still providing good service. Usually serviced by several jetways, the plane is absolutely massive. Heathrow had a few gates for heavy aircraft where several 747s cruised by. The A380 dwarfed all of these planes.

I was sad that I didn’t get to see it land, which would have been a hell of a sight to see. The main landing gear consists of twenty wheels and the plane is so massive that it has to use cameras to aid pilots in navigating the beast on the ground. I was hoping to see it take off, but I was sent down to my gate to check in.

Getting through security at Terminal 4 was a breeze and the airport is laid out exceptionally well. Their approach for screening is very straightforward and helpful. You walk through several different stages of checks and when you actually get to the strip and put everything through the machine part, there is someone on hand to help you with trays. They also wrap the conveyor system around at an arc so multiple people can perform tasks at the same time, with a yellow line to stand and wait to be summoned.

At the gate, I had to present my passport again and was sat in a “secure gate area” with people watching to make sure we didn’t get out. Curious enough, these security agents were not with any carrier or airport, but a third-party agency contracted to provide the service. Also unfortunate is the placement of Gate 2 at Terminal 4 in Heathrow, which only has a view of the airplane you’re about to board and nothing else. I put on my headphones and drifted away for a while.

I actually started to revisit a lot of things that existed in a version of myself from a long time ago. I became really comfortable wearing headphones and walking around London. As well, I was constantly surrounded by people in situations that I would otherwise tend to avoid. I was just another person with my headphones on connecting what I was listening to what I seeing, a perfect marriage of sensory perception.

Music created the perfect soundtrack for me as I people watched on the city streets.

Sometimes hectic, sometimes blissful the music guided me through crowds and public transit stations, helped me lug around the dead hooker bag without incident, helped me write massive blog entries on my Blackberry, and helped to pass time waiting when necessary. It made me realize how much I miss just listening to music and removing myself from worry, something I don’t get to do very often anymore. As we get older and more responsible I think we tend to forget about what is important, ourselves.

Ghandi said it best, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”

I was reminded that it’s important to take some time for yourself to find an escape. Take in what is around you and enjoy your time on Earth. For me, music and fresh air accomplish 99.9% of this goal instantly…for you it may be different, but always remember that there is a big world out there, go explore it, and learn to enjoy everything around you.

I drifted back into the world in time to hear the announcement to board Zone 4, the farthest point away from the front of the 767-400ER you can board. On the way in I was standing next to a dude with huge shoulders, tattoos, and an interesting disposition. He told the stewardess that he was in row 31.

“Oh shit. I’m in row 31”, I thought to myself. Being elbow-to-elbow with this guy for 8.5 hours was the last thing I wanted.

Thankfully, I ended up sitting next to a very tiny Chinese woman who was really sweet and funny. She was on the way to Las Vegas with boxes and boxes of crap she’d undoubtedly gathered abroad. I think she had an interesting experience waiting for her in customs back in the US…I saw her being herded to an inspection officer with her trolley full of crap shortly before I left.

As we departed I looked out my window and had a great view of the Emirates A380 taking off. Watching that massive plane get off the ground is simply amazing.

I learned this time to put my bookbag and equipment in the overhead, using my coat to wrap it gently to keep it from getting hurt. This gave me plenty of room to spread my legs out and rest, watching movies on the in-flight entertainment system as we flew.

“I think the problem is spreading, each terminal on this side has failed sequentially…My best guess is that the video server isn’t allowing new connections and needs to be reset.” I told the stewardess as everyone started to become frustrated with their monitors. “We’ll have to reboot the system.” they replied on the overhead. That’s right, now planes have complicated entertainment systems that are Linux-based and tend to fail. Who would have thought that a flight attendant, or customer service manager, or whatever she was called, would have to deal with servers and hardware…Ah well.

Because of the failure, they turned on all content. Boom. I watched three movies and one on my iPod while they were fixing the system and the flight felt short. No bumps, no problems, great flight. Delta has a very commendable service to Heathrow, Terminal 4 was really sweet and I didn’t have any problems thanks to the British Airways (BA) Strike.

There was some talk early on that a sympathetic baggage handler slowdown might happen, but thankfully I and my dead hooker bag made it all the way with no problems.

As soon as I got home, I sorted out my mail, had a jacuzzi and passed out…Drinking until the late hours, then flying across the world will make you a bit tired.

To wrap things up, it was a great time. I think I’ll be going back to The Netherlands at some point again to explore, possibly on my way through into Germany and France. It was fun to get good at exploring on my own. It was an experience that I would recommend to anyone, and just remember the best way to get by is to be cool and appreciate local culture. Learn how to say please and thank you in native languages and appreciate helpful situations.

The thing is, people are people no matter where you go. They respond well to being nice and confident and always look for something to show similar interest. A smile will take you a long was as well…no one can resist a charming and warm smile from someone who speaks well.

I’m thankful to have made every train/bus/boat/plane/car/ricksaw on time as I traveled. Somehow I feel as though karma was on my side as I narrowly missed a few, but never had any real frightening travel failure. I was also zen and calm most of the time, except for the 10 minutes before my Eurostar journey back to London.

It was worth every second and every dollar spent. Remember, take some time yourself and chase what you’ve never chased before, have experiences and enjoy life…otherwise, what was the point of all this, really?

Cheers!
lunks


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