November 17, 2007: Super Crazy Travel Day

November 16th Wrap Up: We left the apartment in Newark via a taxi cab to Newark-Liberty International Airport at five thirty. The cab was a few minutes late but we were allowing three hours at the airport because it is an international flight and that is what they say to do so we were not at all worried about a fifteen minute cab delay. We had so much time to kill that it wasn’t funny.

Caffe Ritazza Sign at Marylebone Station

We got to the airport and checked right in. No waiting at all. The only issue that we ran into was that our carry-on luggage was way too big for British Airways (or probably anyone) so a bunch of stuff had to be switched from my carry-on into Min’s carry-on which was then checked instead. No big deal and Min had planned for that.

We got into the terminal without any hassle from security. This was, in fact, the best airport security experience that I have had in the past six years. They actually were nice and helpful and told you what to do and helped speed you through and everything. It was great. Normally they are mean and cold and make people nervous and slow things down just for the sake of inefficiency but this was a very positive experience.

We decided to eat dinner in the terminal as we had more than enough time. In fact we had about two hours to kill after all was said and done. So we went into the one sit-down restaurant available to us, the Sam Adams Brewhouse. We ordered some simple food – soup and nachos as they were the only semi-vegetarian items on the menu. We asked if we could get some French fries but they said that the kitchen wouldn’t entertain “special requests”. Considering that this is the only restaurant in the terminal that services Air India and they blatantly don’t serve any true vegetarian items and won’t make any compromises this is really a slap in the face by Newark International to one of the regions largest populations. Not offering vegetarian selections in a venue like this is unbelievable. It was a strong statement to us as we sat there noticing that the entire population of the terminal was Indian and of the few of us that weren’t at least we were unable to get real food being ovo-lacto-vegaquarians. At least we were able to eat the soup.

The food that we ordered – all stuff that takes no prep time as it is premade – ended up taking well over an hour for the kitchen to bother making. No one got any food during that time. Meals trickled out of the kitchen very, very slowly. Even with all of the time that we had to kill we had to leave most of our food behind and were only barely able to get the check brought to us so that we could move to our gate. It was unbelievable.

The Sam Adams service was so bad that the person at the table next to us ordered the chicken and brie sandwich. When it was delivered as just chicken on a bun they complained that the brie had been left off and that they wanted to be sure not to be charged for it. They were informed that since the server had never heard of brie that however the kitchen made it was how it was and whatever brie was was on there or didn’t come with the sandwich and that was that. Outright lying and deceit. It was truly unreal. At one point we literally went over an hour, as did the table next to us, without the waitress even looking at us once let alone checking on us.

So we ran to our terminal after that horrible eating experience. I will be avoiding Sam Adams in the future. They like to play themselves off as some “micro-brewery” gone popular but they are as mainstream as mainstream gets just using their name to sell any crap that they can. It isn’t like their beer is even made by them. It is made by contract breweries like the old Genesee brewery in Rochester. If you wouldn’t drink the cheap brands like Genny Twelve Horse Ale or Honey Brown then why would you drink Sam Adams? Exactly. Just a marketing machine that sells beer. Not a brewery.

Our flight ended up being delayed by about an hour because of a traffic problem in Newark that kept the crew from getting to the plane on time. But it wasn’t too long and we knew that it was just a matter of them being driven to the airport and then we would be able to leave. Unfortunately it was getting later and later and that meant that our morning would be getting pushed back more and more too. Our schedule is too tight for their not to be chain reactions involved.

We finally boarded the plane and were off of the ground around ten at night. The seats were a bit cramped but there were some movement options that actually made the trip not too bad. I was actually very surprised by how little the very, very long flight affected me. We really enjoyed that they had a GPS system on the plane and every seat had a little television that would show you the flight speed, altitude, temperature and showed you on a map where you were.

Our flight path carried us directly over Boston, Halifax and St. John’s Newfoundland and then out over the open waters of the cold North Atlantic. There was no more land beneath us until we crossed the Irish coast early in the morning. We flew over the south of Ireland directly over Cork and then over the Celtic Sea and over Wales and down into London.

During the flight we were served a real dinner which for us vegetarians was tortellini in a cheese sauce that was actually very good. Not what I am used to eating in the air. It was hot and came with a small bottle of wine, a nice dessert (lemon crumble or something) veggies and everything. Much better than the Sam Adams restaurant. In the morning they also served breakfast as we were passing over Ireland. I thought that it was bizarrely appropriate that having flown out of New Jersey – a place about as foreign to my family as England is – that the very first foods that I ate as I passed over Europe for the first time were yoghurt from Upstate Farms and processed in Batavia just twenty minutes up the road from the place where I grew up and where dad still lives. And the orange juice that I drank was bottled by a juice company in Akron, Ohio just half an hour or so from where most of my family still lives and where my parents grew up.

And now on to November 17th and England

We arrive around twenty after nine in the morning but were stranded on the plane for another twenty or thirty minutes as they didn’t have anyone available to drive some stairs over to us to allow us to disembark down onto the tarmac.

We stepped off of the plane into the grey, misty overcast world of London. The first thing to hit us was how awesome the weather was for late November. It was so warm that we only wanted our light fleeces if we were going to be outside for quite a while. It was perfect weather. Both overcast and dark while being nicely warm even very early in the morning like it is now. Everyone in the UK that I had spoken to before leaving mentioned how cold it was and said to dress very warmly. But I am familiar with the British and Irish weather norms and I don’t know what they are talking about. One of the great things about the British Isles is how perfect the weather is all of the time. We are convinced that everyone in the UK thinks of the United States as being all like Los Angeles and doesn’t realize that most of the population of the US lives in places drastically colder than anywhere in the UK ever gets.

At this point I was able to test my new Verizon Mobile / Vodafone service which immediately fired up and worked like a charm. We definitely have phone and Internet service wherever we go so feel free to email us on our trip. But don’t call. (Later on I was able to verify my office’s BlackBerry service as well.)

British customs was quick and painless. Far easier than entering either the US or Canada. Dominica will get to experience re-entrance to the United States where it is very clear that the US government is not happy to have its citizens returning home and very much wished that we would all leave and just stay abroad. It is clear that the current government does not have the support of the people and doesn’t like them much either.

London Paddington Platform

We hopped onto the Heathrow Express which zipped us down to London Paddington Station – one of the world’s most famous railway terminals. It was cool to get to see this landmark in person. From there we caught London Underground (aka the Tube) and zipped just up the street to Marylebone Station where we had about forty-five minutes to kill before catching the train to Stratford-upon-Avon.

Marylebone Station was actually very cool. It is nothing but a bizarre glass enclosure stretching between two ancient industrial buildings. It was really cool and quaint. You never see stuff like this in the states. We got some Pounds Sterling to carry in case we needed cash. I sat at a table in the station and Dominica went into the Ritazza Cafe to get us some pastries and coffee as it was lunch time and we were dying without caffeine. Neither of us slept more than a few hours on Thursday night and last night I was lucky if I slept fifteen minutes all night. Min might have slept for two hours but more likely only one or a little less. Sleeping on planes is tough.

The thing that is so funny about Ritazza being the place that we got our first coffee is that there are no Ritazza Cafes in the states and yet I get their coffee all of the time because they are the company that runs the cafeterias at my office in Warren, NJ. I had no idea that they had regular restaurants in the UK. I did know that they were based here, however. I took some pics to share with my coworkers as it is just entertaining. They actually have quite good coffee – even in the canteen at work. Not what you would expect.

So we got onto the train but it turns out that trains in England run on precise time tables (which through us off as we are used to NJ Transit) and we got onto the wrong train as they are literally spaced three minutes apart and you have to know the exact time to get on! Totally different than back home. Some people on the train helped us out and there was no issue. We just rode the train up to the Banbury, in Oxfordshire, stop and got off and waiting for the train following ours and then got on that one and kept on our way. Banbury is a market town. It is distinctions like this that make England so very different from America. The ancient heritage is a part of everything here.

One of the first things to strike you about England is how all of the buildings are so old. And I mean really, really old. Houses everywhere are hundreds of years old. Houses from eras when most of the United States was unsettled England has tightly packed row houses still in heavy use today. Coming from the US and Canada this is an amazing display of early construction and longevity of buildings. I have never been exposed to anything like this and I think that most North Americans would find it very shocking.

The layout and overall construction of England is so massively influenced first by its medieval heritage and descent from monarchical control and secondly by its entrance into the industrial revolution that it is staggering to behold. In America the memory of the industrial revolution mostly lies in the ruins of old factories and the occasional warehouse in a place that makes little sense today. The revolution is all but wiped from our memory and it definitely does not play any major role in America today. The buildings of that era have long since faded away and their influence on the towns and villages has been marginalized by new construction and changes to infrastructure.

But in England the industrial revolution touches every inch of the landscape. Every little village is full of old factories still in use and the ancient houses and civic structures built to support the industrialization being primary housing vehicles today. In America the use of such old buildings would be unthinkable. I see these buildings as we travel through England and it is hard to really comprehend that they are actual, in use, living structures. This is far from my ken.

The trip from Banbury and north we noticed that the landscaped changed and both Min and I commented on how the landscape was completely indistinguishable from Upstate New York until you saw a village. What is bizarre here for an American is seeing the remote English countryside looking just like Livingston County in New York but then, instead of tiny, rural farming communities, interspersed with massive high density villages that are big enough to easily qualify as cities in the USA. No matter how rural we got the villages were still tight streets with houses all attached and crammed in. It makes for a high population density while still allowing for a great deal of farmland. The other thing that we noticed was that instead of the farms being full of cattle they were full of sheep. Which are much cuter and more scenic.

It was at three ten in the afternoon (that is Greenwich Mean Time, +/-0 or five hours ahead for those of you on the US east coast in cities like New York, Boston, Washington or Atlanta. Eastern Standard Time is GMT -5) when we stepped off of the train into Stratford-upon-Avon. We checked a map and with our luggage it was going to be too far to consider walking to the bed and breakfast where we are staying so we grabbed a cab to take us there. The first thing that I noticed was that the cab was a very nice, new Mercedes-Benz. Very comfortable. And perfectly clean. Not like anything that you would see in the US. Ever.

Stratford-upon-Avon Sign

The bed and breakfast that we are staying at is a little place that recently re-opened with new owners (we think) just to the south-eat of the village center on the lower bank of the Avon River. We checked in and everyone was very friendly. As we entered it felt a lot like any B&B that you might find in Ithaca or Wyoming, New York. But our rooms turned out to be completely different than we were expecting. Everything in them was brand new. The bathroom was brand new. It felt like a brand new hotel even though we could clearly tell that we are in a bedroom in what was originally built to just be someone’s house. The room is immaculately clean and is the first hotel that I have ever been in with an LCD television! We are extremely impressed. And the price is great for the UK and includes breakfast which we will be testing out tomorrow.

One thing that really stands out here is that even though the locals think that this is “cold” the inn still had all of the windows open and tons of fresh air. They just dress appropriately instead of turning on the heat and using trapped air. It is great! Dominica and I both really appreciate this approach. Is it also notable that the air here in the midlands is very clean and that we haven’t seen any insects which is completely different than back home. Here the windows don’t even have screens and are left open all of the time. In New York or New Jersey that would be disastrous.

Our first thought was to get in showers as we both felt awful after having traveled for twelve straight hours (not to mention three hours waiting in the airport, one hour on the ground and one hour in a train station) so we got right to that before doing anything else. I hooked up the laptop just enough to verify that we had Internet access and checked to make sure that our power adapters were going to work. Everything works and we are good to go. That was the last of our big worries (which included being able to get money, use credit cards, get to our destination, have the hotel be okay and have communications working.)

After showering we changed and headed straight out to walk to the village to take advantage of the pubs there. It is hard to express what all we noticed different about the UK than the US. Differences are hard to articulate and are often quite subtle. A few really obvious things included the noticeable “community” here – neighbours are really neighbours. There are lots of people walking on the walking paths to get around the village. People really do get around on foot even out in “the country.” Public transport will get you anywhere you need to go. Teenagers actually all go out and hang around in the village and are part of the general social scene.

Dominica’s client at work told her to definitely try the old Black Swan, now known as The Dirty Duck across the street from the Royal Shakespeare Company. So we went there and had very good English local beer (Flower’s Original Strong Ale) and excellent victuals. The prices were not out of line with what we would see in Newark for pathetic pub food too. So here is one example of the British beating Americans in the pricing game and getting much better products for their money.

We were so exhausted after our long trip and lack of sleep that even though it was only five when we sat down at the pub we were ready to pass out! Dominica had one pint and I had two. She got an amazing vegetarian butternut squash and leek Wellington and I went for the traditional fish and chips. We also got dessert. Dominica going for a chocolate and orange pudding while I went for an egg custard tart a la Lyle in As Time Goes By.

We walked back to the inn, ordered our breakfast and were passed out before seven. The bed was firm and very nice. The fresh air was great and here, it would seem, the ocean keeps the air warm at night so the temperature is still great for sleeping with the windows wide open. I woke up just before midnight and was wide awake. So I decided to take advantage of the situation to get SGL caught up for our first day. Otherwise we will be stuck backlogged the entire time that we are here.

Our breakfast is scheduled for eight forty-five in the morning. I hope to get some additional sleep in before then. Our plans tomorrow loosely include taking a bus tour of Stratford-upon-Avon including going out to see Warwick Castile which, we are told, is one of the finest castles in England. Mostly we are just out here to relax and get a feel for non-London England. So far I am really glad that we did. I can totally see us being happy to live in an area like this – preferably someplace less touristy and not quite so big.

We didn’t have many opportunities to take any pictures today. We were moving all day long and it was dark by the time that we set out for dinner. Hopefully tomorrow though. That is the plan.

I got the few pics that we have uploaded to Flickr and created our UK2007 Flickr Set to make keeping up on the images easy for those of you who don’t subscribe to our Flickr feed to get the pics automatically. I had to install Picassa onto Min’s new laptop to be able to edit them for you. Sorry that there is no podcast today but we knew that that was going to happen. We are hoping to be able to do one tomorrow. Dominica is excited about doing it too so there is a good chance that we will sneak one in at the end of the day.

My Internet connection in SuA is quite weak and uploading images is a major problem. It is unlikely that we will get another batch of pictures or the podcast uploaded until we have access to a stronger connection in London.

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