July 13th, 2011

England Day 1: Vomit, Gatwick, and EasyBus Conspire towards Disaster

Note: I’ve decided to review the first day of our legendary trip to England as a separate post, because it was awful and the rest of the trip was excellent–sort of cordoning off the pain. If you can appreciate a wry depiction of various minor miseries, by all means read on, but if you prefer avoid this grim and frankly disgusting post, feel free to skip to all the other days of the trip (once I write about them), as all the rest were super-fun.

So we were taking a redeye Air Transat flight from Pearson to Gatwick, which meant that when it was delayed just a tiny bit, it was hard to process because I was already really tired. But 45 minutes is not all that long, and eventually we were in the air, reading Rampike (well, I don’t know what everyone else was reading, but that’s what I had) and hoping they would bring us something to drink as I had forgotten to get water beforehand.

The flight staff were nice, but seemed a bit frazzled and overwhelmed organizing and distributing a hot meal to the giant aircraft. This was somewhat gratuitous, as a) it was the middle of the night so no one was hungry, b) I’ve had nice sandwich type meals on Air Transat before, but the hot one turned out to be disgusting. I tried a bit of my chicken and rice, but the texture of the meat was truly bizarre, so I gave up and ate my salad and cookie, which were fine, and then tried to go to sleep. Sorry to dwell on the food–this comes up (ha!) later.

I couldn’t sleep that well, and woke up less than two hours later to find that that there were still four more stupid hours until we could be in England. I read a bit more, and then heard a noise that sounded like a heavy chair being dragged across a tile floor. This turned out–though it took me a while to understand–to be the woman across from us being violently ill. This continued until after we landed–she was still retching as I walked off the plane. When an alarmed flight attendant–they were all both attentive and alarmed–asked the husband and daughter what they thought the matter was, motion sickness or perhaps the flu, both said in stereo, “The food!” I’m not sure that could be true, since no one else was ill, but that grey chicken being limp as wet toilet paper sure makes a powerful case.

Her husband and daughter were paragons of kindness and took good care of her, and I certainly felt bad for the woman and understand I was lucky to escape her fate. All that said, it is very very difficult to listen to four hours of intense sickness at close proximity without, at least a little, wanting to die.

So it was a very wrung-out and tired Rebecca who arrived at Gatwick. Also thirsty–the flight staff had never been all that generous with the little dixies of water, and the first thing I wanted was a big bottle all for me. Hahaha, said terrible fate, as there were no vending machines or drinking fountains before customs and, hahaha again, it was the day before the public workers’ strike and the border patrol was at a near standstill.

As we cruised past the border patrol area and down a long hall packed with sad-looking tourists and their luggage, wailing babies, and fairly baffled staff, I realized we were in for a wait of several hours. I asked staff members where I could get some water, and they said the wing was under renovation and thus, “There’s nowhere.” We stood in the line for a while. I kept licking my gums. Finally I found the bathrooms–one toilet for men and one for women, in a hall crammed with hundreds of people. I asked a staff member if I could drink the water from the taps in the bathroom. He said he wouldn’t recommend it.

Finally I encountered a staff guy who recognized my desperation (it had been over an hour in the non-airconditioned hall by this point) and actually went to the staff room, bought me a (big!) bottle of water, and brought it back for me, apologizing for having taken so long! He is and will remain my hero. All the staff were nice about my plight, just not sure what to do, and really the generous thing that guy did for me is not really a possibility for all the people who were there. I seriously don’t know how the families with little kids got through it.

When I finally returned to our spot in the lineup, Mark had made friends with the couple behind us, also engaged and also from TO–we talked wedding venues for a while. When the woman in front of us–floral-dressed and angry–drifted sideways away from her husband to see up towards the front of the line, and then remained there, a guy a dozen people back came over and tapped her on the shoulder. “You wouldn’t be trying to cut in the line there, would you? Because we’re all waiting here.” With wordless distain, the woman went back to her husband, and the guy went back to his spot in line. One of our new friends murmured, “This is how riots start.” Too true.

Here are some grainy shots of the terrible lineups:

They’re terrible shots and don’t show the full extent of the problem. I post them mainly because staff was roaming around stopping people from taking pictures of the mess. I figured out why when the next day the papers said the delays were “reasonable”–ahahaha.

So we of course missed the appointed time for our prepaid EasyBus ride into London. But we were within the hour’s grace period that our ticket allows when we finally reached the stop. The girls there waiting said the bus was late, and was later still when it arrived–after our grace period was over. I thought we could at least ask if the driver would honour our tickets based on the time we showed up, not the time the bus arrived, and expected a simple yes or no. Surprisingly, he instead started screaming at us and calling us liars, saying he knew we weren’t there when we said we were, because *he* was–a lie in itself. Welcome to London.

Exhausted, dispirited, hungry (would *you* have eaten the breakfast provided on the plane?), we wound up paying the second fare just to make him stop calling us names. EasyBus is really inexpensive, but not if you have to pay twice (I’ve since written to complain about all this, and received a form letter in response, stating of course they would investigate all complaints thoroughly, but due to “confidentiality” they could never speak of it again. Ugh.)

As soon as we got on the highway, I realized we were trapped in a vehicle with a driver whose relationship to reality was a bit loose–what if he dumped us in a field or held our luggage for ransom? So it was not a calm drive into town, though it was pleasant to look at the fields and other-side drivers and to think, “Wow, I’m really in England.”

Miraculously, the driver took us where he was supposed to, and even let us have our luggage back–yippee! Even better, the dudes in a convenience store we stopped at were overjoyed to see tourists. They unfortunately had no maps to sell me, but were happy to direct us to the subway station, and also to talk me through which of the English coins was which. I bought another beverage (I spent the rest of the trip stockpiling fluids) and set off for the tube.

At the tube we found maps, and more people who love tourists. As I puzzled over the stops, the guy at the “assistance” booth was hanging out his window, beckoning us over. I finally noticed this when he yelled, “Where do you want to go?” He talked us through the map to our destination, and then to buying Oyster cards, the inexplicably named metropasses of London.

We made it to our north-end B&B in…well, it took a while but we made it. Charlie’s B&B can only be described as a budget hotel, but it was a pleasant enough old townhouse with a kindly elderly proprietor (who asked midway through the checkin process if we were Jewish, with a seemingly neutral reaction to my affirmative response. Why is this always happening?)

Our room was both miniscule and in the basement, but I was content enough with it until I realized the bathroom had no door. With two hours sleep in the last 24, and no food in 12, this discovery seemed potentially worth crying over, but in the end we decided our relationship could withstand this blow, and went out for dinner (yes, by this point it was dinnertime–time flies!)

And…and…and…London is really awesome! We walked to Kentish town, looked at shops, read menus outside restaurants, watched the people bustling around (more native Londoners and fewer tourists than we would see later, as we were so far from the heart of downtown). We ended up having a lovely meal in an airy upscale pub, then wandered back to the hotel, where even the discovery that the bed had only one sheet could not prevent an excellent night’s sleep.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for listening to my rantings–it’s good to unburden myself of all this. The trip was nearly all brightside after this–stay tuned!

2 Responses to “England Day 1: Vomit, Gatwick, and EasyBus Conspire towards Disaster”

  • Julia says:

    I’m so glad you wrote about the horrific food on Airtransat! My husband and I flew the same redeye to London and ate the same terrifying grey chicken and were stunned that our metabolisms survived intact! The breakfast was equally hideous (we left it virtually untouched). The flight itself was smooth, but I couldn’t get over how truly awful the food was — I mean it seems like you have to *try* to make food that gross. Sorry about the Gatwick experience though — as we were leaving London in late June, it seemed that everything was on the verge of a strike…

  • Rebecca says:

    Sorry you had to go through the grey-chicken horror, too, Julia! I didn’t touch the breakfast because of the on-going vomiting across the aisle, but on the way back I was hungry enough to try again, and the vegetarian option was passable. Not great, but not alarming. It’s completely unclear to me why they don’t give people a sandwich–harder to screw up, less prep, no microwaving required…

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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