Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Return Journey

I was supposed to fly from Amsterdam to London to Chicago. Instead I opted to take a bus from Ghent to London – thinking that I could sleep during the ride and then spend some time in London. Otherwise, I’d spend most of my last day in airports as I journeyed to Amsterdam – airport waiting – flight – London waiting – long flight – ugh.

I opted to take a pretty early train to Ghent, planning to quickly find the bus station and then hang out a bar in the college neighborhood while drinking enough to guarantee my bus sleep. The bus station in Ghent was supposed to be 100 meters from the train station – I looked for more specific information, but didn’t find it. I expected to find signs at the station pointing me in the right direction. Nope. The people at the train station didn’t know either. It wasn’t on the map. So I walked around the station, but it wasn’t in sight. So I hit the streets.

In retrospect, I walked too far in every direction and well surpassed the 100m mark. But I also didn’t know if it was on the main streets, or maybe on side streets, so I traversed the surrounding streets and walked a lot. I was carrying all of my gear, including pounds of chocolate, and was getting pissed at the ridiculous situation. Finally I found the Euroline station. Instead of being open until 10:00pm, like the website said, it was dark and closed. I actually had walked by it several times, because I was looking for an open, lighted storefront. Slightly annoyed, but mostly relieved, I trotted to the building. It had signs posted in the window that read:

New Bus Stop:
Before train station at the Maria (something else) Kiss ‘n Ride.

Once again – no map, no signs. I stamped my foot in frustration because I was livid. I looked on the map and found a street with that name, but walking on that street didn’t reveal any obvious bus loading stop or signs. Grrrrrrr....... I went back into the train station and asked where the kiss ‘n ride was. The man looked at me like I was completely crazy. I asked where people got dropped off and he said everywhere. Great. Finally, I decided that I had a rough idea where the bus would come and I’d just have to keep my eyes open and pace the stretch when the bus was supposed to arrive.

At this point I was walking around between 1.5 – 2 hours looking for the stupid bus station. I didn’t have time, or inclination to leave the neighborhood, so I ducked into the closest restaurant/bar and ordered dinner and a ½ carafe of wine for myself (from the Flemish menu, not the English!). The raw beef sandwich was super yummy and the wine warmed my belly. I tipped the nice waitress the rest of my euro money, which ended up being less than five euros. She thought I paid too much and was in disbelief when I said the excess was for her because she was an excellent waitress and kind to a traveler. Her face lit up so much you’d think she won a lottery. She really was a great waitress – very attentive to her customers and spent the rest of her time diligently washing tables and glassware. I wanted to offer her a job at the Hbar.

When I finished brushing my teeth and washing up in the bathroom it was nearing the time that I should begin my search for the bus. Better early than late, I thought and went outside. The bus was parked right in front of the train station – within sight of where I thought it might arrive, but not on the correct street. Grrrr. I boarded and we left the station five minutes before the bus was scheduled to leave at 11:45pm. It would be ridiculously easy for someone to miss that bus.

The wine did the trick and I basically passed out into a deep sleep – until I was woken two hours later for an ‘immigration check’. All of the passengers piled out and into a building where our passports were checked and we filled out cards to enter the UK. Back on the bus there were restless children and I couldn’t sleep. Then the bus went through a lengthy procedure to drive onto a ferry. We had to leave the bus and go to the waiting area for the duration of the trip across the channel. The waiting area was harshly lit and again I couldn’t fall asleep during the 90 minute ride. Once again we were herded back on the bus.

The children had just settled down when we were told that needed to go through customs – which required grabbing all of our bags from the belly of the bus. I got my bag quickest, because I was the last passenger who boarded the bus (most people I believe got on the bus in Antwerp, instead of Ghent). I flew through customs, but waited for most of the other passengers to put their luggage on the bus, so mine would be on top again in London.

After this third interruption the children were completely awake and cranky. No sleep for me. It wasn’t until a half hour before departure that sleepiness hit me – and hit me hard. I was crashing and bone-tired when I got off of the bus in London at 6:00am. I was so tired that I planned to sleep in the station for a bit. That plan didn’t happen, because the station seemed really sketchy. Who are all of these men, without baggage, who are watching all of the other people so intently? What are they doing at the station at 6:00am? There were also signs posted warning people about luggage thieves, pick-pockets and assault. I opted not to sleep at the bus station. Instead I wandered to the nearby train station, after heading in the wrong direction. Once again I was wandering in the dark, lost in a strange city and fully loaded with my gear. Nothing was open.

At the train station I had a cup of coffee, used the bathroom and felt like I could function, even though I was still tired. I figured out what train I would need to take to the airport and watch the earliest commuters pass through the station. Then I decided to walk and found myself at Buckingham palace. I perched on a statue and watched the city slowly wake up. I anticipated seeing the sun rise, but the sky never colored with fire, but instead only slowly paled to daylight. Still it was great to watch the commuters – bikes, cars and pedestrians.

Unlike the other European cities I visited, London bikers looked more like American commuters. More than half of the bikes were road bikes with drop bars; almost everyone wore helmets; lots of spandex tights; and reflective bike jackets. They rode with traffic – asserting their space, but following the rules and stopping at red lights. I also got to see the guards moving the horses in. I think there were eight riders and sixteen horses. The riders (and one of the horses!) wore florescent yellowish green jackets. The stir-up of the rear horses had red blinkey lights, and the horses wore reflective straps on their ankles. I can’t begin to explain how much this delighted me.

Eventually my solitary perch transformed into its daytime manifestation of a tourist attraction and lost its magic along with the darkness. I slid down and moseyed along the grounds of the park. I saw guards drilling without any fanfare and enjoyed the park. My feet were beginning to hurt along with my back from my pack. Most pressing however was my urge to pee. The bathrooms were still closed and I was seriously considering just dropping trou in the park. Finally a bathroom was available and I didn’t need to chance getting arrested in a foreign country for public urination in a national treasure. I turned out of the park and found the Piccadilly tube station a few blocks away that lead directly to the airport. Yippee!

On the way back to the park, I mailed some post cards and found an internet café and let the load of my pack slide from my shoulders to the floor. After 45 minutes I headed back to the main train station/shopping mall to buy underpants for a party in Chicago and a few last-minute gifts. Most importantly, I took a shower that was available for 3 Euros. I was very happy about being clean when I started my flight home and having a clean pair of underpants to change into at O’Hare.

For some stupid, stubborn reason, I decided to walk to the Piccadilly train station instead of having to transfer tubes. Unfortunately, this also meant I didn’t have time to eat. My morning perch was completely overrun with tourists and I darted out of there as fast as my sore feet could take me. My feet were giving all indication that they were blistering, but still I thought walking would be more fun. Dumbass. By the time I reached the airport I was limping and thoroughly hating my pack.

The flight back to the states was pretty uneventful, but even though I should have been exhausted, I couldn’t really sleep. I watched the comic styled movie “Sky High” twice because it was more entertaining than any other options. As on the return trip, I attained my goal of not using an airplane bathroom.

At O’hare I again limped around as I made my way through immigration and customs. (I had a blister the size of a dime on my pinkie toe). I declared my chocolate and jams – and I think this surprised the customs official. Is it common for people to lie to customs? I couldn’t find my way to the main terminal because of vague signs, just missed the shuttle and started getting angry. At the main terminal I had a hard time finding the CTA train and was in full-out pissed mode. I was detoured to a far-off bathroom and fuming.

In the bathroom I met a woman who was trying to bathe herself as best as possible by the sink. She was miserable because she was bumped from a flight and had spent over 24 hours trying to fly from CA to OH. She even bemoaned that she was reduced to using handsoap to wash her hair. I offered her some of my shampoo and she became super grateful and as she suds her mood lightened. After she rinsed out the suds she had a sopping mass of wet hair and I asked if she had a towel. She said she didn’t but would figure something out. I began digging for my travel towel and when I offered it to her she happily accepted it and announced that she felt almost normal again. She stood up straight for the first time and I noticed that she was quite pregnant and she said that her eight year-old daughter had been puking for the last many hours and that she had been completely overwhelmed by her travel ordeal. I wished her better travels and she again thanked me and expressed amazement by the kindness of a stranger.

My crankiness had disappeared when I offered her my shampoo and I was feeling quite chipper and happy as I left that bathroom. I recognized that every delay and detour that had caused my annoyance had worked to make our paths cross. I was very happy for this chance meeting and the opportunity to help out a weary traveler and mother. My Blue Line ride to my friends’ house flew by and I finished the book I was reading just seconds before my stop.

Katy and Jan, a very cool couple older than my parents, had an “underwear and winter solstice party.” Instead of being the pagan-sex party one might assume, it was actually a party seeking donations for a mental institution. Institutions will accept the donations of used clothing, which is easy to come by – but only take new underwear. Consequently, they are cronically lacking in underwear. So guests were asked to bring new underpants (hence my purchase in London). Over 120 pair of women’s underpants were donated, along with men’s, too.

I brought Belgium chocolates, too and Katy was thrilled that I literally arrived straight from London (and thrilled with the chocolates). I spent far too much of the night answering friends’ questions about my trip. By the time I arrived at the party, it was after 2:00am in Europe, so it was surprising that I wasn’t sleepy. Instead, Paul and I were the last guests to leave – it was a great party.

We walked (I limped) a few blocks towards my house before I caught a bus there. We exchanged gifts and I finally went to sleep sometime between 3 and 4:00am. Paul had to wake up at 6:30 to catch a train home, so this was another night of not much sleep. I got up with him and didn’t get to sleep until much later that evening. Somehow I managed to avoid jet-lag completely and am simply operating fine on far less sleep than I should.

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