Sunday, May 12, 2024

Saturday, May 4, 2024. Heading home.

 I don't think I needed the alarm. I was pretty much packed from the night before - just needed to throw my pajamas in the suitcase and I was done.

We had tickets on the Heathrow Express back to the airport. They don't have a set time. A train leaves Paddington Station every 15 minutes. Our hotel was about ½ mile away from that station, but with heavy, full suitcases and carry-on bags, I wasn't going to complain about the Uber Cynthia summoned for us.

 The Uber dropped us off at the taxi area on the back of the station. Until now, we'd only gone through the pedestrian entrance on a different street. We had to take an elevator down one level from the street. The station on this side was unusually quiet. Luckily, there were signs on the floor leading you to either the Heathrow Express or the regular Tube trains, so we didn't struggle for more than a couple of minutes before figuring out where to go.

 We passed through the automatic gates that scanned our tickets and were between two trains. A man ran past us and hopped on the train to the left. We had first-class tickets, so I didn't want to just hop on a train without orienting myself, so we walked down the platform toward some workers. The train the man jumped on left while we were walking.

 I approached a worker, showing him my ticket and he said, "Why are you showing me your ticket? Just get on a train." Well, on the other end, at the start of the journey, I needed to show my ticket before getting on to the train in a first-class car. This guy didn't care what we did and was angry to be approached by someone. Ah, London. Thank you for bookending my vacation with angry workers who are resentful they have to do jobs.

 We got on the remaining train, in one of the first-class cars, and sat down. We started out alone in the car, but one man did hop on before the train departed. He sat a good distance away from us, which was good because he was coughing.

 After a quick train journey, we found ourselves back at the airport. I tried once again to check-in at one of the automatic kiosks, but was given a card to report to an agent instead of a boarding pass. Cynthia got her boarding passes. I was ushered through to the back-checking agents and they were able to print my boarding passes after informing me that I would have to go through customs and security in Dallas before continuing to Burbank. I don't know why I needed extra waring while my sister didn't, but whatever.

 The security line was a little bit different than in the US. There were tables where you could search through your carry-on bag before going through the scanners, to make sure you didn't forget any liquids or electronics. We didn’t stop here, since I think we both knew where our extra scan required items were in our bags and we could easily find and remove them.

 Even though in Burbank I didn't have to take my phone or iPad out of my bag, I had to in London. But I didn't have to take my shoes off. You only had to take your shoes off if you were asked to do so. I made it through the security scan with no problems. Cynthia was no so lucky. Her bag was flagged in the x-ray machine and she had to stand with an agent while he searched through her bag for whatever had looked suspicious. I sat and waited. It was a rattail comb in her bag that had looked like a knife. And she had too many liquids so they threw a couple of them away. 

We sat at our gate, and only had about 30 minutes left until the airplane would start to board. Good thing we did give ourselves the full 3 hours they suggested to get through the airport because apparently that wasn't an exaggeration. I got a tea at Starbucks and a Coke for Cynthia at a newsstand. We were in the second-to-last boarding group, so had to wait while watching almost everyone else get on the plane. Airlines - window seats should go first! I don't understand the stupid way that people are loaded onto planes.

 This time the flight was full. There were no empty middle seats. And this wasn't a redeye flight. We left London at 1:10 PM and I was scheduled to arrive in Burbank at around 9 PM.

 My vegetarian lunch this time was a little better - not vegan. It was also the same as the vegetarian option all of the passengers had, but I was given my tray early to make sure they didn't run out of that selection. It was paneer in curry with rice, a chocolate brownie, a bread roll and quinoa coleslaw. The snack later in the day was less appetizing - a toasted pastry filled with zucchini and marinara sauce. I only took a couple of bites of that one. Yuck. 


I watched three movies on this leg. The Beekeeper: terrible writing and acting, but not bad enough to turn off. Bullet Train: by the same guy who directed The Fall Guy. I liked it overall. Aaron Taylor-Johnson was very good and I would have preferred that his character not die, even though he was a bad guy. Brian Tyree Henry was also excellent. It was pretty good. I took a break and wrote up a lot of this travel memoir, even though my keyboard had died and I had to enter it on the little keyboard on the iPad screen. With just over 1 ½ hours remaining, I watched Relax, I'm From the Future because it fit the time constraints. It was ok, but had some confusing logic in it. Best not to think too much about it. It was short and not didn't require a lot of thought to watch.

 Back in the US, we had to go through customs at Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW). Luckily, the line for citizens was shorter than the line for people visiting the country, so we got through the customs line pretty fast. Nothing to declare!

 Then we had to go collect our suitcases and drop them off in a different location. It seemed stupid, but I guess it was just to make sure that there weren't unclaimed bags getting on plane transfers. I got an email that a lot of suitcases didn't make the flight, so to not freak out if our suitcases were there. Luckily, they both made it. I would have been surprised if they didn't considering how early we got to Heathrow.

 From dropping off our suitcases, we had to go back through a security line. This line was long. It was estimated to take 20 minutes from a place in the line that was still 15 minutes away from us. That's how they counted it as far as I could tell. They didn't just say, "From here, it is 35 minutes." Nope. Fifteen minutes from here to where it will be another 20 minutes. This is where it started to look like we might not make our connections. I was still optimistic, but things could go south.

 We finally got to the scanning area and this time, I was the one who got pulled aside for a bag search. I had packed a lot of tea in my carry-on, because it was heavy, and the tins looked suspicious. A TSA worker pulled all the tea out of my bag and swabbed the containers. He put the swab in a scanner and it set off an alarm! He had to call a supervisor over. My sister, worried she'd miss her connection, left me at security. I wasn't bothered. The supervisor and original TSA worker opened all of my unopened teas and said, as they looked into each one, "That's tea." They swabbed them one at a time and this time the alarm didn't go off. They offered to pack my bag for me, but I said I would do it.

 I packed my bag and found my gate. I then went into the toilet and removed my compression socks. I hate them! I only left them on this long because I knew I'd be taking my shoes off at DFW for the security line and didn't want to walk barefoot on the airport floor.

 I was getting email updates for both my flight and my sister's flight. Both flights were delayed and kept changing gates. My flight left at least an hour late, so worrying about the long security line was a waste of time. The delays were weather related. There were big storms all across the country. As a result, the flight to Burbank was bumpy to an uncomfortable degree. I was relieved when we landed safely. My friend who had been watching my cats picked me up and drove me home. All of my cats, except for Shio, came out to see me as soon as I got home. My house was just even messier than I left it. The cats knocked a couple of chairs over, but everything was fine.

 I had been up for close to 24 hours by then, and fell asleep pretty quickly. Glad to be home. My vacation this time was short enough, though, that I'm not swearing off traveling again like I did in 2014. The flights were brutal, but I could see doing it again under the right circumstances. The right circumstances might have to be saving up to fly business class, though.

 The end.

(The cookies from M&S that were delicious and beautiful.)

(Diva happy to have me home.)
(Flight path home.)

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Friday, May 3, 2024. What's left?


We didn't have anything scheduled for Friday. We had stopped in an M&S food shop in St Pancras station the night before, so Cynthia could get a Coke for the next morning. While waiting around for her, I browsed some of their packaged cookies and decided we should go to a bigger M&S on Friday to get some gifts for friends back home. And I also wanted to try on a few of the dresses I had seen on our first, more frantic visit to M&S on Sunday evening.

 But a visit to M&S wasn't enough of a plan for the whole day. I asked if there was anything Cynthia wanted to see that we hadn't seen. No. I checked in with Gail and Charles, but they had a few things scheduled for the day, so seeing each other might be rough. It would all come down to if we were in their part of the city when they were free. 

Even though we had had great weather after our initial touch of rain when we landed, it was a dreary and drizzling now. Steve, the Stonehenge tour guide, had told us about a Tardis at the Earl's Court Tube station, so visiting that was a possibility. But I worried it would be crowded and a let down, with not much else we wanted to do in that area. I tried to remember what I knew about London from the movies I've worked on and seen. I then remembered working on Last Christmas, where the lead female character worked at a Christmas shop in the Apple Market at Covent Garden. Covent Garden looked like a cute area, so I suggested we head over there. So we did. 

 I remembered I did have one thing I needed to do, since this was our last day in town, and that was to buy stamps for the postcards I'd written. We walked from our hotel to Paddington station and took the Tube to Charring Cross Road. This let us out on The Strand. I found a post office on my map and had some trouble finding it in real life. We went into a souvenir shop that looked like it was in about the right place, in case they were the post office. They weren't a post office but they did sell decorative stamps, similar to those I had purchased at Stonehenge. But the decorative stamps were more expensive than the internet said stamps should cost, and Charles had warned us about counterfeit stamps, so I decided to find the real post office. The guy in the souvenir shop said it was three shops down.

 Three stops down turned out to be more like 7 or 8. The post office was, oddly, in the basement of a shop that had nothing to do with the post office. Weird! I bought my stamps and mailed my postcards. Chore done!

 We went back to the souvenir shop to finish up some souvenir shopping and to look at the hats they sold. Cynthia had wanted to buy a hat on this trip, and the fancy ones turned out to be outrageously expensive - like in the £600 range. Souvenir shop hats were probably more in line with what we were looking for. She found a flatcap for about £35 and I found a newsboy hat that I liked, also for £35. Cynthia bought some tea and we set off in search of Covent Garden. 

(The newsboy cap I bought.)

Part of the problem with the search for Covent Garden was that Covent Garden was a larger area than I thought. I didn't realize we were specifically looking for the Apple Market, so it took a while to figure out which way to go and what we were looking for. But we found it.



The Apple Market was cute. There were stalls with vendors selling their homemade arts and crafts in addition to some high-end shops. Cynthia was thrilled they had a Guerlain shop where she could buy her favorite perfume. We browsed around the market. We bought chocolates in a shop, Neuhaus, that had the royal warrant of Denmark, and bought some tea from Whittard of Chelsea. They had several pots brewed around the shop, so you could taste before buying and wash down the chocolate you just ate. 


Without much of a plan, we returned to the Strand and walked toward the river. We had driven over the river on the Misery Tour and Stonehenge trip, but hadn't gone to see it yet. We were enticed into an Italian restaurant for lunch, L'Ulivo. How many more times would we eat Italian food on this trip? We shared a cheese pizza and tricolore salad. I also bought some roast potatoes. I had a small pot of tea and used the toilet, which was downstairs again. Their toilets were really nice. We were the only diners in what was an unusually large restaurant for London.


(The restaurant interior.)

We walked to the river and I was surprised to see we were directly across from the London Eye. I suggested we walk west along the river for a while before heading back to the hotel. We went through Victoria's Park and another small park on the Embankment and ended up at the Palace of Westminster. We stopped at a souvenir stall on the walk and both bought flatcaps for £10! We had driven past on Monday, but now we were up close. I asked Cynthia if she wanted to go see Westminster Abby or St Paul's while we were in the area, but the Tube station (Westminster) was right there, so we got on the subway and headed back to the hotel to drop off our hats and souvenirs.

(£10 flatcap)





We took a short break at the hotel room. Cynthia caught up on her games. I started packing. I tried to check in for the flight the next day, but I got an error message that I couldn't complete the check in. Cynthia checked in and it worked for her. She got her boarding passes but I'd have to get mine at the airport.

We headed back out, heading to the M&S on Oxford Street, not far from the hotel. I bought a dress and some chocolates and cookies, a black current cordial drink and some water for the night and next morning. We had a miscommunication and I thought we would drop things off at the hotel again before heading to dinner, but Cynthia thought we were heading to dinner first, so she didn't buy heavy drinks. There weren't a lot of restaurants visible from where we were on Oxford Street - it was all shops - so we continuing to the Tube station, which was very close to where we were. We had an argument/fight, but got on the Tube. I suggested we should go to Queensway to find food, which was the stop past Lancaster Gate.

(This is a box of cookies! It is a metal tin with reflective artwork.)


(Which of these dresses did I buy???)

We went to Queensway and I told Cynthia she should pick the food. I knew she wanted to have Indian food while in London, and this was the last chance. We walked into an Indian restaurant, but it didn't smell right to her. We went to a hamburger joint, but they only had a table free for about 45 minutes, so we'd have to rush. Then we found a nearly empty restaurant and went there. My friends, let me tell you, we did manage to have Italian food one more time. I had pasta pomodoro and Cynthia had spaghetti bolognaise. I told her that spag-bol was practically a national dish, according to my media consumption, so it was an authentic English meal for our last night.

Cynthia still needed some provisions for the night and next morning, so we went in a shop on Queensway that was called something like "Wine and Cheese." Turns out, it was all Asian import food. Not wine and not cheese. We left and headed back down Bayswater to our local Waitrose at the service station and got some last-minute things. I had wanted to try Ribena while I was in London, so I bought one. I also bought some Flakes and another water.

 The sun was just going down as we got back to the hotel. The Ribena was sweet and watery with a slightly chemical flavor. Not good. I didn't finish it. The black current cordial was sweet and thick, like juice concentrate. It was good for a few sips and then became too much to take. Maybe with ice or added to lemonade or something it would have been better.

I finished packing and discovered my luggage scale wasn't working. How much did my bag weight? I couldn't tell. I decided to remove the heavier teas from the suitcase and put them in the carry-on, just to be sure I wouldn't have to pull things out of the suitcase at the airport. My suitcase barely closed, even though it was almost half empty when I got there. I bought a lot of stuff!

Our flight back wasn't until around 1 PM the next day, but we needed to be at the airport 3 hours early according to the Internet. And that didn't look like it was an exaggerated suggestion. It looked like, yes, it would take that long to get through security and make the flight without rushing and panicking. We didn't have to wake up super early the next day, but early enough that I set an alarm.

(I bought the green/blue dress.)

Friday, May 10, 2024

Thursday, May 2, 2024. Amsterdam.

 Originally, I had thought about visiting three cities on this trip to Europe - London, Paris, Amsterdam. Looking at dates, time available to be off work, costs and travel options, Paris got cut from the lineup. But I had one bucket list item to take care of and that was the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I researched hotels in Amsterdam and flights in to either Amsterdam or London and out of the other, but that doubled the cost of the flight. I also didn't love the idea of schlepping suitcases to multiple cities during the trip, and adding travel days, so Amsterdam became a day trip.

 There are several trains to Amsterdam from London in the morning and there are return trains at night. I booked us on the earliest train out, at 6:15 AM. That meant being at the train station at 5:15 and waking up at about 4 AM to get dressed and to get to the train station. Cynthia was already sick of walking (and in pain from her broken toe), and there had been thunderstorms overnight, so she ordered us an Uber to St Pancras Station early in the morning. It probably took about as long as the walk/Tube combo would have taken, but we didn’t have to walk at all.

We got to the station in good time and got through customs. They stamped my passport here! Hooray! The London airport, like I said, didn't seem to care who was entering the country via the airport. No stamps, no people. We sat in the waiting area with people who were also waiting to head to Paris and who were very early for the next couple of trains to Paris and Amsterdam. I got a tea and chocolate croissant at Pret a Manger. There was another slight language barrier at Pret. I ordered a tea, and so didn’t recognize my order when the woman called out “tea with milk.” I was the only one standing there, so she asked me directly if I ordered a tea with milk. “I didn’t order milk.” “Did you order it black?” “I didn’t specify. I assumed it would be black.” “This is yours. Tea with milk.” I’m fine with tea with milk, so it wasn’t a problem. I took the tea but I'm still not convinced I didn't drink someone else's tea. My sister ordered a muffin, which was also undercooked. Is this some cultural thing? Undercooked pastries at Pret? I think she threw hers away after one or two bites. I ate the croissant. It was pretty good.

 Just like on the Heathrow Express, I booked us first-class train tickets to Amsterdam. What a good idea! The car we were in was half empty and we could change our seats after they were sure everyone had boarded. We moved to seats facing each other in the front carriage of the car and had no one near us. The first-class seats also included a meal and a snack, and seemingly unlimited drinks. The car attendant put out trays of drinks, including wine, so we could help ourselves. Such a better travel experience than British Air.

(Our private car.)

(View from the train.)

(Train breakfast.)

 We arrived in Amsterdam a little late because of some delays on the tracks, but our museum entry wasn’t until 2:30 PM/14:30, so it was fine. Amsterdam uses 24-hour time, though, which is confusing when you aren’t used to it. I changed the settings on my phone so it would display in 24-hour time, but my UK SIM card didn’t work. We only had my sister’s phone to rely on. And Apple Maps sucks!!! It felt like we were walking forever before we found the museum. 



(Amsterdam, various.)

By this time, I needed a toilet. We went to a nearby cafe and I walked down the scariest stairs in the world to use the men’s toilet because the woman’s toilet had no light! We ate caprese sandwiches in the cafĂ© to pay them back for letting me use the toilet, and so we wouldn't have to wander around finding somewhere else to eat. We walked back over to the museum and Cynthia sat and listened to the buskers while I went souvenir shopping. I needed a few postcards and had seen some wooden tulips along the walk that I wanted to grab.

(Am I looking up or down this staircase? Up. I'm looking up.)

(Wooden tulips.)

I didn’t do any research about Amsterdam before traveling there, so I still don’t know what was up will all the rubber ducky shops. There were only a few tulips in the mostly cobblestone and pavement city. And bicycles. There were so many bicycles and pedestrians… I was ready to scream from all the people and bicycles. I hated the general vibe.





(Tulips in planters in Amsterdam near the Van Gogh Museum.)

Anyway, it was time for the museum. We had traveled with carry-on type bags, to hold shopping and, it turned out, our coats. Those larger bags had to be put in free lockers before we could go up to the exhibit. You typed in a code and picked a symbol on a keypad and a locker popped open. You needed to remember the same code and symbol to open the locker when you were leaving, so they suggested using your birthday. Our bags safely locked up, we went up into the exhibit area. 




Here are my observations. The paintings were dark. The museum lighting was terrible. It seemed like there wasn't a lot of actual electric light inside, just ambient light coming through the windows. The paintings were all covered in glass, too, probably a result of things like climate activists throwing paint and soup at the art. The result was that all of the paintings had glaring reflections of the windows in them. You couldn't really see the paint. Wow, it was disappointing.

 The internet age has also ruined lots of things. The number of people turning their backs to the more famous paintings to take selfies with them was crazy. Prove you’ve been there some other way! I also don’t understand taking pictures of the art when you can see it on your computer, in a book, on a poster or in many other ways in better circumstances.

 The museum was crowded and people are annoying. I did love the Giant Peacock Moth and Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette. I was able to eavesdrop on a few of the tours at different stations. I was more moved, though, seeing Irises at the Getty in Los Angeles. I’m glad I went to the Van Gogh Museum, but I didn’t react how I thought I would.

 I took the stairs up the several stories of the museum and my sister took the elevator, so we didn't go through the floors together. After going through the museum, we went to the giftshop and bought lots of things. They were cash only, so the Euros I had left over from lunch and souvenir shopping were still burning a hole in my pocket. After the giftshop, it was back to the basement to retrieve our bags from the lockers. My sister's bad luck continued and her locker wouldn't pop open when she entered her code. I found a museum worker and he was able to open the locker from a table he carried.

 We left the museum and Cynthia summoned an Uber to take us back to the train station. There was a mall inside the train station, so we bought some Simon Levelt tea to use up some of my useless cash. I still left Europe with about €10, so I guess if I ever go back I've got more than enough cash for the trip. Then there was some confusion about how to find our train. I asked a man in a yellow vest, who I'm pretty sure worked at the station, where to go. We found our platform and went back through customs, getting another stamp in our passports, and waited for the train.

This time the first-class car was fully booked, although not everyone was starting out at the Amsterdam station. We had stopped at Brussels and Rotterdam on the way out, but just to let people off of the train. Now people were boarding at Rotterdam, Brussels and Lille, so even though it looked like there were empty seats, they were spoken for. Cynthia and I had to remain in our side-by-side seats this time.

(Train dinner.)

Dinner was served, which was a spinach frittata with couscous and a mango-passionfruit tart for dessert. Excellent! We got a snack a few hours later, a granola bar. There was a slight mystery on the ride back when a male passenger across the aisle got up and left his seat. He came back about ten minutes later, grabbed his laptop and charger, and left again. He didn't return to his seat for the duration of the ride. It was weird. On the plus side, I stole the mango-passionfruit tart from his abandoned food tray. Was that a good idea? I haven't died, so yes. Lola would be proud of me.

 Cynthia Ubered us back to the hotel from St Pancras in London and we fell asleep still feeling the gentle rocking of the train.