June 20, 2012: Returning Home

It was a little bit painful pulling ourselves out of bed at four thirty this morning.  Not only are we generally exhausted but were up late last night getting ready for today and today is a really long, daunting day with nothing fun at all to look forward to so we just see this incredible death march stretching out in front of us.  Ugh.  Not what I want to do on just three hours of sleep.

We did pretty well getting moving and we were checked out of the hotel and hiking it up the hill to the bus stop at twenty till six arriving at the bus stop, a little bit tired, fifteen minutes later.  We sat and waited for the bus.

When the bus didn’t come, we started to panic.  This is the only form of public transportation that the city has and the six o’clock bus, already later than we had wanted, never came.  Now it was five after.  What do we do?

This was not going to be a good day.  We were really tight on time and stressed about this morning connection to the airport as it was.  That there was no train and no airport shuttle but just a normal city bus run and that it did not start running until thirty minutes after we had wanted to have left was bad enough.  But now even that bus doesn’t appear to exist.

We had very little choice.  I ran out into the street and flagged down a taxi.  The first taxi just drove away when he saw me coming.  Not a good sign.  The second taxi that I found was happy to take us to the airport, however.  So I jumped in and he drove me across the square to where Dominica was still standing with the girls – I had had to run some distance to get to a taxi.

We loaded into the taxi and sped off to the airport.  The upside is that we got to the airport very quickly and were there at least ten minutes or more before the bus would have gotten us there had there been the six o’clock bus and had it been on time.  Maybe we were as much as twenty minutes earlier.  It could not have been after six thirty when we got there.

Getting through Lisbon’s airport was not bad at all.  Even with only an hour and a half we were able to get through security and have a little time to sit at the gate before needing to board.  It was a really long walk to our gate, though, and we were pretty worn out by the time that we got there, mostly due to the stress of not having our bus show up this morning.

The girls wore themselves out playing at the terminal gate for a while.  Luciana just wanted to run down the long terminal back towards the airport and would do so any time that we let go of her.  Liesl was far more sedate.

The flight to London from Lisbon wasn’t bad at all.  Takes a little over two hours so we arrived near eleven.  The flight actually managed to get in on the early side.  This would seemingly be a good thing.  However, this is Heathrow that we flew into and coming in early is a little like not coming in at all – Heathrow is an antiquated airport from the dark ages (apparently built to house pigeons not airplanes) and a bus driver has to come out along with someone with stairs so that you can get out of your airplane in a different postal code than where the terminal is.  But London is the land of unions and no one does these things.

In our case, the bus came out to get us.  But we were left on the tarmac as no stairs arrived.  So we went from being early to being late while we waited for Heathrow ground crew to do the most trivial of duties.  Had we had all day and no worries about missing our next flight this would have been relatively trivial, but Heathrow is, by no small margin, the worst airport on earth and the time needed to make even a simple connecting flight on the same airlines can take a ridiculous amount of time.  We had two hours allotted only (it was British Airways the whole way through and Heathrow is their airport, why they felt that two hours was a plausible amount of time for a successful layover at Heathrow I don’t understand at all) so we were really worried.

The stairs finally arrived and we had to rush as quickly as we could to navigate the maze of confusion that is Heathrow.  It is truly amazing to attempt to describe the problems that Heathrow has.  Nothing is labeled and none of their staff have the slightest idea of what is going on.  The airport is packed with Heathrow employees lollygagging about with apparently nothing to do while the airport just falls apart.  Of course, as we learned six weeks ago when we arrived at Heathrow, getting the airport people to assist is even worse than when they do nothing since they will happily block you from your flight and, for example, direct you through the border instead or vice versa.

Having to take a bus to the terminal, a train to another terminal group, then another bus and really, really long walks to get to a gate means that even the most trivial transfer is onerous.  It took at least thirty minutes to do the American equivalent of “walking down the gangway.”  Thirty minutes to go one minute of distance.  At each bus we had to wait for fifteen minutes for the bus to arrive and then ride the bus for several minutes.  In America you could make a ten minute transfer in a pinch.  At Heathrow, I’d never want to make the attempt with less than four hours and even then would have concerns.

To make the transfer even worse, we had to go through security, again.  This makes sense but makes it really painful transferring in the UK.  Even though we had just gone through full security in Lisbon, never left the terminal, never entered the UK we had to go through security as if we had just arrived at the airport.  While this was decently fast and efficient it still adds ten to twenty minutes in the middle of your connection and makes you that much more likely to miss your flight.

If we didn’t know our way around the airport already, knew not to listen to the Heathrow staff who haphazardly directly you just anywhere to make themselves look busy when their manager walks by or didn’t basically jog through the airport you would never make your flight.  I can’t believe that British Airways plans for you to have to jog and panic just to make their flights.  That doesn’t seem like a good plan.

To add insult to injury, Heathrow forces you to walk through restaurants and retail outlets placed all along your path where you have no time to stop as you panic to get to your gate.  You can never safely stop because you never know if you are five minutes or forty-five minutes from your gate.  You cannot reliably anticipate if there will be another security checkpoint, another bus or whatever blocking you from progressing at an obvious speed.  So while you are starving and would love to stop at any of the delicious looking restaurants, you don’t have that option.  Instead they are just there to tease you as you are force to hurry past.

When we finally got to the gate it was so far from all of the food that we had no way to go get any of it.  It could easily have taken twenty minutes or longer to return just to get a pre-made sandwich or something.  There was a bar in our gate area but they did not have pre-made food and there was no way that we could risk having food made.  I took a walk through our entire gate area and found no food.  Dominica took a walk and found some bagged items inside a news shop hidden in the back.  So at least we had something.  Very, very poor, though.

At this point Heathrow has really driven the point home that no one is welcome at this airport and they truly feel inconvenienced to have people flying through there.  We are taking this to heart and will do everything that we can to avoid Heathrow in the future.  There are airports all over the continent into which we could fly much more conveniently.  No amount of British Airways having good customer service can overcome them using this pathetic airport.  BA should move to another airport entirely.  I can’t believe that they opt to fly their customers through Heathrow.  I’m truly surprised that the British government doesn’t shut it down as an embarrassment to the country.

We managed to make our flight, that was a huge relief.  This whole day has been just rushing and rushing.  This is our last critical connection – once we land in New York there is little that can go wrong as we have resources there and nothing to “miss” as we can do things like borrow cars, stay with friends, use credit cards, etc.  So once we boarded our 747 heading across the pond our comfort level went way up.

As we did on the last flight, we sat with me at the window holding Luciana, Liesl in the middle and Dominica on the aisle.  I prefer the aisle but Dominica overheats on flights much more than I do so I take the window seat.

This flight had in-flight entertainment and I managed to watch Journey 2 which was a cheesy, but fun, movie taking a tip from Jules Verne and other contemporary writers and pretending that they were all, in actuality, writing about the same topic and that all of their works were actually meant to go together and that they were clues leading explores to a lost island in the Pacific.  A pretty odd premise and the movie was incredibly light.  There was no doubt that the movie was primarily shot for the purpose of showing off 3D effects and at times you felt like you were sitting in Disney World at one of their 3D movies that were made, long ago when 3D was a novelty, just to be silly with 3D.  It was incredibly distracting and you know that it is bad when you know that that is what they are doing and you don’t have access to a 3D view of it.

I also managed to watch the second Sherlock Holmes movie.  It too wasn’t bad.  It wasn’t very good, but it wasn’t bad.  I have not seen the first movie so likely that would have improved it to some degree but the movie was really weakly directed and was just too obtuse to be really good.  But it was fine and it helped to pass the time.

I actually pulled off watching three whole movies on the flight.  The last one being This Means War which I had never heard of before but it had Chris Pine who I normally enjoy and it was very lighthearted.  Again, it wasn’t a very good movie.  In fact, it was incredibly dumb.  But it wasn’t particularly bad and was fine for passing the time on a trans-Atlantic flight.  With three movies to watch the flight actually passed quite quickly for me.

The girls did really well today.  For a long time Luciana actually fell asleep in my arms so that I could not move for many hours – thank goodness for the in-flight movies!!  Liesl was so good, keeping quiet, playing with her toys and watching shows while we flew.  I can’t believe what good travelers we have.

Just as we came in to New York I reached into my pocket to pull out the HTC Incredible 2 Android smartphone that we have been using for the last six weeks while we have been in Europe.  If you remember we had to get this phone specifically for this trip and it was a total panic at the last minute.  We were very sad that we were stuck using an Android, rather than an iPhone, while in Europe but we only needed the Android to make it until we returned to the States because Dominica’s account was up for renewal on the 19th (that was yesterday) so she could get herself an iPhone 4S the moment that we returned.  Keep that in mind when I say that… I reached into my pocket and jabbed my thumb with glass.  That’s right, the Android, in the last moments of our European vacation, had somehow shattered in my pocket without me knowing it.

I was actually able to power on the phone and carefully post, having to move my fingers between broken bits of glass, on Facebook that we had landed and that the phone was broken.  Then I put it into a plastic bag and stowed its remains away.  We won’t be needing that phone again.  Ever again.  I guess I know what I will be doing tomorrow.

Landing in New York was nice.  We have been looking forward to being back home for a while.  US Border Control was a breeze.  They have improved that a lot over the years.  It used to be quite scary coming back to the US for US citizens.  Now it is comfortable and fast.

It took a really long time to get our luggage, but that should be expected, I would think when dealing with a fully loaded 747 since there is just so much luggage to move around.  It probably took us nearly an hour to get out of the airport, maybe even more, but we are home in New York and we have all of our luggage.  At the end of the day nothing really went wrong which was pretty amazing.  Even the stroller, which we had checked at the end of the gangway in Portugal made it out in New York.

Once we had our luggage we made our way to the airtrain that took us out to Federal Circle.  At Federal Circle are the car rental places for JFK and Avis was there with the car that we had reserved yesterday.  Unfortunately instead of a Chevy Cruze we got saddled with a Dodge Avenger – quite literally the worst car that I have driven in years.  The car felt like a hobbyist project to see if high school kids could build a working car in a weekend.  And the answer is, they can’t.

The Avenger was horrible to drive.  It shook like it was going to fall apart and it could not hold the road for anything.  Any slight turn of the wheel would send the car wobbling this way and that.  It was terrifying to drive and had so little power that it was all that it could do to merge onto the highway.  The shaking was so bad that when around forty miles per hour or higher I could hear Dominica struggling to breath as the car shook the air out of her breath by breath.  If you talked there was a slight effect like someone speaking into a car.  All from the pathetic suspension.  This is pretty much my impression of Dodge vehicles so I was not totally surprised but even for my low expectations of things made by Chrysler this was dramatically poor.

We left the airport with the fully loaded, sad little excuse for a car (or go cart, I’m not sure how it is classified)  and ended up going right into New York City rush hour traffic.  That kind of sucked.  So it took quite a while to work our way off of Long Island and up to Westchester County.

The drive north took us pretty close to our house in Peekskill.  Boy is it weird driving right past the old place.  What makes it so incredibly weird is that we still own that house but someone else has lived in it nearly twice as long as we ever did.  And, we believe, they just renewed their lease for another year so they will soon have lived there three times as long as us.  It has been quite some time since I was last down in Westchester and the Hudson Valley.  I’m not even sure that I have driven through here since getting the last of my stuff out of storage.  It might have been quite some time.

Dominica and the girls were totally exhausted.  It was around six o’clock local time when we were starting to drive but the jet lag has our internal clocks set to think that it was closer to eleven or midnight so they were passing out.  Dominica passed out pretty quickly and slept pretty solidly for quite some time.

Dominica really wanted to go see her parents and the rest of her family who are all up in Frankfort.  So she had me drive up the northern route taking the New York State Thruway rather than the far more direct route through the Southern Tier so that we could stop for a while and visit in Frankfort.  She promised, after I had informed her that there was no way that I would have the energy to drive all that way after having stopped for a while to visit given the jet lag and how long we had been up, that she would be all set to drive back to Rochester after that point, about another three hours.  We had discussed all of this prior to being in the car so this was not a spur of the moment decision.  I really did not want to add time but she was extremely adamant about wanting to see her family.

Dominica woke up around nine while we were a bit south of Albany.  That is when it hit her just how late it was already and how late it was going to be as the night stretched out in front of us.  She called her family and they were all going to be in bed by the time that we would be coming through Frankfort.  So we are not able to stop and need to go straight on to dad’s place.

The detour, which we didn’t need to do, added about an hour and a quarter of extra driving to the trip.  So instead of just over six hours it was nearly seven and a half hours of road time.  A really, really long evening.  Dominica felt really bad once she realized how far we were driving and that she was so tired that she could not even remotely have driven any of it.  So she went back to sleep and I trudged on.

It was pretty late, between one and two in the morning that we pulled into dad’s place.  The drive went okay but it was a struggle.  I was really exhausted and never got any chances to nap or anything all day.  When you add in that we only slept three or four hours at best last night, got up really early and traveled non-stop for the following twenty-six or twenty-seven hours you can appreciate why I was so exhausted when we got home.  Dominica and the girls managed to pull off several hours of sleep in the car while I drove.

Both girls were able to be transported to bed without waking up.  We unloaded just the minimum from the car and hung out with dad for just a little bit.  Then it was off to bed.

So the trip is completely over.  We are now back home, safe and sound.  Our luggage is worn out, completely shot.  The phone has been destroyed.  My second pair of shoes were abandoned in Lisbon having fallen apart.  I lost my nice fleece on the train in Germany about a month ago.  None of us want to wear the clothes that we have had on in Europe this past month ever again.

It is going to take a while for our brains to go back and compile this mammoth trip into something comprehensible.  Already I am having a hard to placing events into any logical order.  Time moves very oddly when you are traveling at such a pace.  We are extremely thankful that I was taking such meticulous notes during the trip or we would be completely lost now.

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