Saturday, May 3, 2008

Serendipity and Umbrellas in London


It's been over two month since I was in UK so it's about time I filled you in on the details. So here goes.

When Adrian and I had decided to go on The Big Trip™ back in 2007 we also decided that we'd have to save some cash. That meant no Biggish Trips™ like we'd done in years past. It also meant that at the end of 2007 I had two weeks worth of vacation to take. Now we're not the sort to take time off and stay at home. But where to go that required the least amount of spending? Cuba. Prefect price and great time. 

But that left me with 5 days to use up before the end of March and no cash. I cashed in some air miles for $500 in travel vouchers. Then cashed those in for a ticket to London at the end of March. The plan was to stay with friends, just hang out and relax. Of course, about a month after I booked the el cheapo tickets I found out I'd be going to Vancouver immediately after London for work. So my short trip was suddenly became a Biggish Trip™.

The biggest challenge was what and how to pack. I'd essentially be away for 3 weeks and have no access to reasonably priced laundry. And I'd be going away at an iffy time of year - there was still a foot of snow on the ground in Toronto; probability of rain in both London and Vancouver was at least 100%; it could also be freakishly warm - thank you global warming. That means a lot of clothes. Oh and I had to carry a load of Canadian delicasies - kraft dinner, red licorice, sugar-free bubble gum and Tylenol - for my friends. 

The night before I left I spent three hours trying to cram things in a backpack, then in a supersize suitcase, before settling on a dufflebag with wheels. I dragged the bag to work, on the TTC, at rush hour. That made me popular; the number of stink eyes I received was a new world record I'm sure. But I didn't take much notice - I was more concerned with whether or not the pressure of so much stuff was going to cause the zipper to pop on the bag showering the bus, subway and streetcar with my dainties. 

Oh and I was also carrying my favourite full size pink camouflage umbrella.

As much as I loved this umbrella the moment I decided to bring it with me, I knew was the beginning of the end of our relationship. Between the 8 time zones I'd be travelling, the different modes of transport I be taking, and my horrible memory, I resigned myself to the fact that this beloved umbrella was never going to see Toronto again. 

The umbrella survived the el cheapo flight on Air Transat and my journey from Gatwick to Barnes via train and taxi. My duffle bag? Not so much. The over full bag dragged on the ground, rendering the wheels useless. As for me, I was tired but not too bad.  But after briefly chatting with my friend and host, the lovely Julie-Ann I put my head down for a brief nap.

At noon, I grabbed a shower and went online to figure out how to meet up with my friend Dave. He was in London for one day only for a job interview. Our plan was to have a drink and catch up. I found his mobile number and texted him then headed to the general area where I knew his interview was. As I was exiting Russell Square station I was suddenly face to face with Dave. 

"Yay you got my text." I screamed.
"What text? I just finished my interview and was wondering how was I going to get in touch with you."
"No text?"
"Nope, no text."
"Oh well, here we are. Let's go for a drink."

It appeared my knowledge of overseas texting was wrong and instead it was serendipity that caused two Canadian friends, coming from Toronto and Amsterdam, to bump into each other on the streets of London. We found a pub across from the British Museum and had some drinks and talked - Dave, about moving from Amsterdam to Barcelona and me, about the upcoming Big Trip™. While I went to the loo, Dave started chatting with the guy sitting next to him, another Canadian from Vancouver where I was soon headed. The world was getting smaller the longer we were in London. 

Soon it was time for Dave to catch his flight back to Amsterdam. He left me outside the Time Out building where I met up with my friend Catherine as well as JA. We all used to work together at the same ad agency 5 years ago so they took me to the mecca of after-work drinking for UK ad folks, Charlotte Street. Throngs of ad folk, were spilling out on to the road, drinks and smokes in hand. Just wanting to chat, we picked the least crowded pub/bar to catch up cau then headed to Busaba (a thai chain with communal seating but no website) for some food before calling it a night.

While my first day in London had been sunny and beautiful, the next morning I woke up to the sound of rain pounding on the window. I grabbed my umbrella and headed to Borough and Southbank with plans to meet Catherine at the Tate Modern later in the afternoon. Despite the rain, I took in the city hall, and funky retrofit architecture before stumbling across the Design Museum. Trying to escape a complete soaking, I spent a couple of hours in here. The British Design Awards were on display and there was so much cool stuff. I can't even begin to describe it: the coolest architectural model ever, a fun interactive video display, designer clothes inspired by vacuums and something called the Burble

When I finally left the museum, I was greeted by another amazing sight - the sun. I headed over to the Tate Modern. Catherine was running late so I enjoyed the sunny weather and wandered around outside. That's just one amazing thing about London - you don't have to go anywhere specific to see some really cool things. Just walk around. As it got a bit darker and colder I headed into the Tate. 

I'd been to the Tate not to long ago so I didn't feel like visiting the permanent collection this time. Instead I walked along the length of The Crack. The Crack is/was an art installation in the turbine hall of the Tate. A giant crack in the floor that runs the length of the Hall (here's what it looked like without the crack). It was much cooler in person than I expected and helped past the time until Catherine could escape work to join me.
 
Eventually, Catherine arrived and we checked out the exhaustive Man Ray, Duchamp and Picabia exhibit. Afterwards Catherine suggested that we head to the pub near her flat for a low-key dinner and drinks.  Well we thought it would be low-key. (Un)lucky for us the only seats were at the end of a table full of rather tipsy guys. Soon we were being entertained by one of them named Lee. He told us some very bad jokes and displayed his exhaustive repetoire of stupid parlour tricks. After a bit of forced conversation and we discovered Lee and his mates were all ad guys. So much for escaping work. They were soon bundled off in cabs, leaving us with their untouched 7th bottle of wine. Thank you very much Lee and co. Once again, serendipity strikes. 

Thanks to Lee's left over wine, the next morning was a rather lazy one. Until Catherine's flatmate returned home and we chatted, soon discovering that she knew Adrian - they used to work together in Toronto. Across the Atlantic, serendipity strikes again. 

In the afternoon, Catherine and I headed back to Julie-Ann's to experience the Boat Race. The Boat Race is the official name for the annual Cambridge Oxford rowing showdown on the Thames. And to a Canadian like me, it brings to mind all stereotypes of the UK. A lot of tradition and stuffy ceremony. I soon learned how far from the truth that was. 

The weather had turned to shit again by the time we arrived at JA's house. It was rainy and the wind had picked up. When we walked in the door JA greeted us.
"What would you like to drink?"
I quickly learned that this was the unofficial tagline of the Boat Race. In spite of or because of, 179 years of tradition, the Boat Race was not about boating or racing it was about drinking. Oh well when in Barnes...

We watched the full day of programming dedicated to the crews, the crews' families, the race, every past race, the current conditions and the past conditions. A few hours (and a few drinks) in and we were all hoping for a repeat of the 1978 boat sinking so we could be a part of the history. So we bundled up and headed down to the banks of the Thames. 

Catherine in her rubber boots, Julie-Ann with her umbrella and me in a hoodie, we slogged through the mud to an appropriate vantage point. Around us, people of all ages and all levels of drunkenness shouted out school cheers that got progressively louder as the helicopter accompanying the boats got closer and closer. Finally, we saw a dot on the horizon. It was Oxford. But where was Cambridge? Had they sunk like we hoped? 

The crowd went crazy as the Oxford crew rowed past in a blink of the eye. Minutes later Cambridge followed. And then the fleet of other boats of various size and vintage. It was soon official. Oxford had crushed Cambridge. 

video
As soon as the boats passed, the crowds surged towards a pub near Putney. It was packed and people were spilling over into the street. And we soon realized that we were relatively sober and pushed our way inside to remedy the situation. Inside, it was even worse. But infinitely more enjoyable. A DJ that looked like someone's Dad was spinning the worst hits of the 80s as people drunkenly danced and hit on each other like it was last call. It was only 6pm. We amused ourselves until hunger kicked in.
video 
We headed back to Julie-Ann's, ordered some Indian take-away and went to bed. 

The next day the three of us headed to Spitalfields to check out the Sunday market. I loved Spitalfields. I wanted to buy everything at every stall but I restrained myself and for that,  the Big Trip™ Fund is eternally thankful. I saw the infamous Brick Lane and Rough Trade records. But one of the coolest things was the Weiden + Kennedy office. Since I follow the W+K blog, it was fun to see the office in reality. As well as a lobby full of funky collectibles and odd art installations, their front window was set up like a miniature Tube map but the tubes were actual tubes where rats played, erm slept. They called it Rat Race. Clever buggers those W+K folk.  

My last full day in London, I was by myself. I watch the rain fall in the morning and as soon as it let up I grabbed my umbrella and headed into the city. I didn't really feel like sightseeing but Adrian had requested I bring him back a specific geeky comic book book for him. I remembered seeing a comic book shop my first day near the British Museum. So that's where I went. I found the comic store and found the book. And since I'd twice been standing across from the British Museum in the last 4 days, I thought maybe I should check it out. When I discovered it was free I was slightly more convinced. 

The first time I was in London in 1987, I stayed around the corner from the Museum but never ventured in. This time I almost didn't bother either except when I looked up the cost of admission in my handy dandy little guidebook, they reminded me of the Great Court. In 2000, a renovation and expansion to the British Museum included the addition of this new structure designed by Sir Norman Foster. Being a bit of an architecture junky I had to see it. And I was not disappointed. Despite the cloudy day, the Great Court seemed eerily bright. The asymmetrical roof played with perspective. And I loved the juxtaposition of the old structure against the new.  After an hour of snapping pictures of this area, I decided what the heck why not check out the museum. 

The British Museum was thankfully smaller than I thought it would be. Yet still huge and chockablock. I rushed through the exhibits: a room full of mummies, the Grenville Library, Roman statuary in the stairways, more Egyptian reliefs in the halls, and finally the Elgin marbles. I took a final few pictures of the Great Court before heading out to no where in particular. 

I really wasn't sure where I was heading. But I soon found myself walking past sharp dressed men in bespoke suits (men, if you splurge on one fashion item ever, please make it a bespoke suit. perfect tailoring will always get you laid.) and face to face with Bush House - home to the BBC world service. I turned down Fleet Street and almost smack dab into a scrum of reporters. Cameras were trained on some sad looking chap with the word Diana written on his face in blue paint - that's right today was some verdict in the Diana inquiry/inquest/trial and I was now standing outside of the Courts. I randomly turned down some side streets before walking through a narrow covered alleyway into the Inns of Court, home to the legal profession in England and the Knights' Templar Church. It was so quiet and pretty despite being a weekday that a puttered around for a bit before heading back to Barnes for a quiet final evening with Julie-Ann. 

I slept in as much as I could the next morning, knowing I had a full day of plane travel ahead of me. Packing was just as difficult thanks to the two grocery bags of crisps and chocolates I had picked up for Adrian at the local Tesco. I compacted the goodies into one plastic bag which I planned to carry on. Which meant I was carrying a large duffle bag with now broken wheels and no shoulder strap, a garbage bag of treats, my computer bag, purse and full size umbrella. That's right, I still had my umbrella. All this luggage was no big deal, I thought. I was taking a taxi to Clapham Junction and the train would take me directly to the airport. Easy peasy. But once I was out of the taxi I realized it wasn't going to be that easy. 

Navigating the thousands of stairs in the train station and airport while carrying all that stuff and wearing three layers of clothing under a suddenly hot spring sun, meant I was panting and sweating and I had left myself short on time. No worries, I now only had to make it to the Air Transat check in desk. But where was it? I walked from check-in A to check-in J but saw no Air Transat check in. So I walked from J-A and still no Air Transat desk. A river of sweat ran down my back. My muscles trembled under the strain of my luggage. The minute clock jumped forward another 15 minutes. Desperate, I asked someone at a random desk. They pointed over my shoulder. I turned around and saw a flight of stairs. 

"Down. the. stairs?" I asked, fearing the answer. 

The clerk nodded. I stumbled down the stairs with my flotilla of luggage. The hallways were dark but around a final corner I found the lonely Air Transat check in. Thankful, I dumped my busted duffle bag on the conveyor belt and picked up my boarding pass. I headed back up the stairs to the security lineup. By now the bag of goodies was coming apart. As I struggled to contain everything, I was directed to an xray machine. I stripped off my layers, took out my computer, and placed them along side my umbrella and bag of goodies on the conveyor belt. I watched it all disappear into the xray machine when an angry voice called out. 

"Who told you to come here?! We're closed!" It was one of the operators of the machine. 
"The man over there" I pointed to the empty stool where the man had been sitting.
"We're closed you can't come here! You must go to another line! Who told you to come here!?"
"The man... he... um... sorry I didn't know... um... I need my stuff. It's in the machine." 
The two security folks glared at me and then looked down at the xray machine; the handle of my pink umbrella was all I could see of the pile of stuff now inside the xray machine. Then they looked at me and I swear they shrugged. As if to say, sorry we can't give you your stuff. No I had to get it back.
"Can I have my things please?" Now the easiest option would have been to let me and my bags through the metal detector and xray machine respectively. But nothing was going to be easy today. 
"We're closed - it can't go through."
"I just want my stuff. Can you turn it back on?" The glare they gave me still burns so I added. "That's fine, I'll just reach in and take it out." 
They glared again and this time, the burn went right through me and marked the wall just behind me. They exhaled loudly, pressed a button and the belt lurched forward another few inches. Now none of my belongings were in view. We stared at each other for an eternity. Then the belt began to reverse and my three layers, umbrella, shoes, computer, computer bag purse and now completely unravelled bag of goodies came tumbling out. 

As I scooped them up in my arms and walked towards the next line, the xray zombies called out.  "You weren't supposed to be here we're closed." 

I finally got to the front of the right security line and began dumping my stuff on the conveyor belt, trying desperately to contain it's ever-growing size. 
"You're only supposed to have one carry-on bag." The new xray zombie called out.
"I know, I'll do it on the other side. My bag broke and..."
"You're supposed to do it before." 
"I'm so sorry, I'll..."
"You can't take that with you."
She held up my beloved umbrella. 
"But I brought it here." 
"Sorry." She started to take the umbrella and place it in the confiscated goods bin, along side corkscrews, nail clippers, butter knives and various pool cues. I had to stop her. 
"But it's my favourite umbrella."
"Fine, you'll have to check it though." She pointed back to where I came from. 

So I grabbed all my stuff, and headed out of the security area, down the stairs, through the dark halls in the bowels of Gatwick arriving again at the Air Transat check in desk. 
"I have to check this in" I blurted.
"Oh? That has to go in at over sized luggage." The rep replied in sing song. 
"What?" I whispered. My voice had gone eerily soft, like a pitch black sky before the first crack of lightening in a thunderstorm.
"Over-sized luggage. It's..."she pointed away from the check in desk. 
"Take it." I thrust the umbrella in her face. 
"No need really, it's just upstairs". 
Something inside of me snapped. 
"Take it! I don't want it any more! It's not worth it. I've been up and down this airport 5 times already. I don't want it. I just want out of this airport."

The stunned woman gingerly took the umbrella and stared at it like I had handed her a severed limb. 

I walked through the dark halls, back up the stairs, past a man who felt it necessary to tell me I looked like I was having a bad day, through the metal detector and onto the plane. Serendipity had come to a crashing halt, claiming my beloved umbrella on the way. 


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