Sunday, December 28, 2008

Are You Hungary? I Thought We Just Ate!

Here we are, sitting on the back of the boat, or what we all call the "aft", as in get your "aft" to the back of the Boat!

We're learning all the nautical terms, as in "starboard," "helm," and "no, thank you, rather than Port, I'll stick with another vodka tonic".

The boat is pretty darn fancy, with about one crew person for every 2 1/2 people. The half person might get short-changed, but we being the two of us have been doing very well!!

We had a marvelous time in London over Christmas with Jona and Claire. Having only lost one day of our trip with our little side trip to SFO, we met them on Tuesday, December 23, staying at the City of London Apex Tower Hotel, right by the Tower Bridge which happens to be right near the Tower of London. Very handy the way they grouped all of those Tower Things right next to each other!

That first evening, we all went to see Spamalot, the play based on Monty Pythons' movie from the 70's, "The Search For the Holy Grail." Although Karen and I had seen it before, the cast was marvelous and it was a very fresh and funny performance. After watching the play, we grabbed a taxi to the Oxo Tower, where we had a marvelous meal at the Oxo Brasserie overlooking the Thames!

The next day, we slept in a bit, had a Full English Breakfast, complete with sausages (they even had vegan sausages for Jona & Claire), toast and beans and several hours of subsequent burping. We walked over to the Tower of London, intending on touristing there, but the Tower was closed and the most you could do was pose with the resident Beefeater who stood fairly still (considering the beefy guy that he was).

From there, we were off to Harrods' Department Store, a Christmas destination resort. Our mutual goal was to do speed-Christmas shopping for each other with a ten pound maximum (English currency, not weight). Judging from the presents that evening, we all had a lot of fun both shopping and opening! Our elaborate wrapping consisted of a collection of newspapers and bags - it worked very well. We had a great shopping extravaganza! Harrods was very well decorated and its food court is an oasis all to itself.

After shopping, we went to see the production of Edward Scissorhands. The show was based upon the story and music of the Johnny Depp movie of the same name. It is basically a ballet and, like almost all ballets I've ever been to, it has marvelous music, incredible leaps, twists and the various "pax" pieces, with an overwhelming emphasis on the word "long," as in, "how long is this piece going to last?" Or, "they sure have been going at it for a long time, are they going to give us a break?" Or, "I long for a drink, why didn't I order a double at the intermission?" There is the occasional funny bit, where you chuckle for a second and then they're right back at it, the violinist sawing away and the dancers princing, leaping and prancing left and right, as our legs go to sleep in our narrow seats. The best part came at the very end, being the very end. Of course, the ballet folks know how to bleed out the applause, and don't even consider leaving the stage until we're all clapped out. They seem to have a sixth sense about leaving just before we start chucking objects onto the stage to get them off.

We split up for awhile, Jona & Claire heading off for food. I suppose it is the very sensible approach of a Vegan lifestyle, where you end up with numerous healthy and smaller meals. I have always approached my meals like a python, devouring some large animal at a single seating and then looking for a rock to lie on and digest.

In any event, we were looking forward to having a nap (napping being one of the single biggest events of any of our adventure holidays). Karen wanted to do some "blogging," so I went to the hotel room safe to take out our computers. Fact is, I didn't realize how safe the stuff was. Our secret code didn't work, so I tried it again and again, assuring Karen that I was doing everything correctly while she looked at me with a look somewhere in between "any idiot should be able to remember four numbers" and "I suppose you think this is funny?" I called maintenance and they sent up the English version of Gomer Pyle, "Golly, I can't seem to get this here safe to open!!" I assumed they had a master key, or code, or secret back door to get into the safes, but this one was really safe, at least from guests and hotel maintenance people. I suppose any normal criminal could have had it opened in seconds. Eventually, as in, almost two hours later, the safe was opened. Seriously, I think it just popped open and Gomer had no idea what was wrong or how he had done it. I thanked him, showed him the door and assured him we didn't need the safe to be fixed, we had decided to give all our stuff away and not worry about it any more, preferring to sleep.

Jona & Claire showed up, we ordered some cheese, fruit, crackers and wine, put a video Christmas tree and fire on the television and enjoyed our Christmas that night. We had a great time!!

The next morning, we slept in, ordered up a light champagne breakfast, played games and had an excellent early Christmas dinner at the hotel. The Apex Hotel was very accommodating, and had prepared an excellent vegan version of the Christmas dinner for Jona and Claire. That night, we grabbed a taxi to Covent Garden and walked around enjoying the Christmas lights and decorations there and at Leicester Square, Regent Street and Carnaby Street.

On the way back we stopped for a late night snack at the Union Hamburger Grill (I thought Jona was joking when he said he wanted a hamburger, but they have vegan versions all over England). Back at the hotel, we said our goodbyes, a teary-eyed Karen in hand, we went back to our room to pack up and get some sleep.

Our flight left from Gatwick Airport at 9:30, but we had it down to a science, waking up at 5:30, finishing up packing, walk over to the Underground where we go about four stops on the Circle Line to Victoria Station, grab the Gatwick Express that leaves every fifteen minutes or so and it whisks us speedily to Gatwick with an hour and a half or two hours to spare. Great plan. The only problem was that this was some holiday called Boxing Day, which apparently the day where the English box things up or pick fights with one another and don't bother to tell anyone that nothing is working. The first item was that the Underground was closed, "It's on Sunday schedule, Sir, won't start running until after you need it. When do you need it?" That's fine, we think,we'll just get a cab. The Apex Hotel had a well-dressed monkey at the front of the hotel, pretending to be human and almost, but not quite, doing normal porter things, like getting a taxi. He looked sincere and we sat about for around 30 minutes before we realized their trick monkey couldn't actually get a taxi. So we walked to the closest major street and started waiting for a taxi to hail. It took awhile but finally one stopped and took us to Victoria Station. We knew we were in trouble when we saw a lot of people standing around a lot of buses and a person was shouting out, "get in line for the next bus to Gatwick!" So much for the high speed train. The bus driver hinted that the trip might take as long as an hour and a half, which would give us about thirty minutes to spare to catch our flight. Karen suggested that the driver go really fast and he accommodated us. While Karen is grateful for the speed at which he got us to Gatwick, she is still sporting several bruises from being bumped on some of the steeper and faster turns. Arriving at Gatwick at the South Terminal, the entire bus was ordered off. Our problem was that our flight left from the North Terminal and there was absolutely no indication as to where that terminal was. We walked quickly but aimlessly, asking periodic directions and eventually found the North Terminal, went up to the British Airlines counter, because that was who we booked through and where we were directed, but after waiting in line, the agent told us we had to go to their companion airline, Malev Airlines, which actually ran the flight. Since time was getting short, we rushed over to where Malev Airlines was located and we're able to not only check in, but to get exit row seats.

The flight was actually the best flight we'd been on for a long time. Hungary's official airline, Malev. Go figure.

We made it to Budapest, found our luggage and a taxi, and headed to our hotel, the Intercontinental Hotel on the Pest side of the river, looking over to Castle Hill on the Buda side. I think our whole adventure finally caught up to us (from driving in the snow, to flying out of SFO, to playing around London with Jona and Claire for days on very little sleep), as we flopped into the bed in mid-afternoon, enjoyed the view for a few minutes and then went to sleep. We awoke in time to enjoy the evening lights on the Buda side, slept awhile longer, and then ordered up room service around midnight. After eating, we went back to sleep. At that point, we couldn't tell you much else about Budapest, but for an incredible view, great food and a cozy bed, we highly recommend Room 624 at the Intercontinental.

The next morning, we ordered up room service, wanting to extend our Budapest Bedventure. I actually ventured out in search of cigars and brandy for the boat. For the former, I was directed to the Cigar Tower, a place I would highly recommend to any fellow smokers! As I was walking about, I also noticed that there was an open Christmas Market.

I returned to the hotel and we finished up the packing, checked out and we returned back to the Christmas Market. We walked around the outdoor shops and enjoyed hot spice wine.

After that, we returned to the hotel, picked up our bags and a taxi and went to the boat. The boat started off like a pampered holiday! Crew greeted our taxi and whisked away our luggage which they put into our stateroom while I settled up with the cab driver! Check in at the boat took only a few minutes and we were in our spacious room, unpacking and putting away our clothes. Everything fit wonderfully and, within a little more than 30 minutes, we were sitting in the lounge enjoying a glass of wine.

Ah, bliss.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail, nor gloom of night - How we actually got to London

Had our trip over the "Pond" been a movie, it would have been filmed in black in white, the opening shot would have been in a cemetery, with dark and ominous music. We're the couple whose car breaks down on a lonely country road, we walk up to an old creaky abandoned house, let ourselves in and then go to the basement to find car tools.

The week before, we had been madly preparing for our early family Christmas and trying to wrap up work to be able to leave. I suppose our first warning was the weather. The words "massive", "arctic" and "cold front" rarely bode well for a travel story. Sort of like having your name in the newspaper with the word "ravine" or "abandoned well". There probably is going to be an issue somewhere.

As each day passed, we kept our eye on the 10-day forecast, focusing on "Sunday, December 21" because that was the date on our flight ticket - Departure Day. Each day, that particular forecast seemed to march steadily downhill. It started with something like: "High of 40, low of 33, rain or sleet possible." Karen claims I'm wrong on this point, but I think the final forecast was something like: "High of incredibly cold, low of you won't believe it, snow, sleet, blizzard, ice storm, locusts, plague possible".

Our first Harbinger of Evil came about three days before D-Day and that was a phone call from Alex at the house, "Dad, do you remember that bathroom? The one with the toilet?" I have a few basic rules in addition to "always try and wear clean underwear" and "never eat white food after Labor Day". One of those rules is never deal with plumbing. Unfortunately, I broke rule number one, thinking I could replace the disgusting ball and chain-like thing without phoning a plumber. Shortly after attempting that feat, with a soaking sweatshirt, repeated outcries of "why is that water yellow" and a Google search for "how to replace very important plastic toilet part that snapped off", I phoned the "Happy Plumber". It's real, look it up. I actually phoned them several times, as I gazed at the old throne in the guest bathroom, the last call at Karen's suggestion included the comment, "you better bring a new toilet".

In the meantime, outside, the weather included snow, very cold, ice, more snow, wind, and more snow, as each day passed. The day before D-Day was our family Christmas and we were greeted with lots of snow, lots of wind and a fair amount of ice. I forayed out into the storm to pick up Joel and Kim. Justin, who lives in the Outer Hebrides, somewhere outside of Vancouver, was having difficulty getting his brood out of the driveway, needing chains for his car. Since I'm of a more advanced age, I have amassed a collection of chains and cables, none of which currently fit any of our cars, but who ever throws chains away? So, we asked him what kind of tires he had and went through the R-675-H2O-235676389387-B-12 routine. Each chain box has an out of order list of all of the tires that each set of chains fits, in small print, and I'm going through the list trying to match them up. It's sort of like checking whether your lottery ticket is a winning number, except there is a greater chance of winning the lottery than there is of randomly having the right set of chains for a car. But I was in luck! Except for an additional letter (I think it was a Z) the numbers appeared pretty darn close, so I threw the chains in the back of my Explorer, called Justin and said I'd be coming over (Sgt. Preston of the RCMP has nothing on me). But Justin's partner, Katie, had apparently been listening to the ominous music that we still weren't hearing and declined my offer. I think she wanted to see the New Year.

Well, except for missing Justin and brood, our early Christmas was a success. We went to bed that night after watching the forecast for the next days' weather, "Continued cold, more snow, freezing rain, treacherous conditions, invading Vandals, pestilence," Didn't seem too bad.

D-Day, I woke up to my back-up alarm, my cell phone; since it was not plugged into our central power supply, which had stopped supplying power to anywhere in the house. The house was very dark and cold. "Honey, it's morning, time to finish packing, don't close the bathroom door if you want to be able to see..." I went outside to check on things and there was a lot of new snow, with a heavy crust of ice on top from the freezing rain. I fired up the Explorer, chipped off the ice from the windows, swept away the snow and went to Starbucks to get some coffee. In the meantime, Karen had been checking on the status of our flight. As the morning passed, more and more flights went from "DELAYED" to "CANCELLED", but our flight to Amsterdam still showed up as scheduled. We packed up the car and were off, slogging down the freeway through snow and ice, the occasional abandoned car off the side of the road. We dropped off Kimberley at her hotel-restaurant downtown to feed trapped guests, then crossed the river to drop off Joel.

At Joel's house, we found out that our flight had been cancelled. We logged onto NW Airlines helpful web site, where they directed us around various circles and links, to end up at "your flight has been cancelled, you cannot be helped". Having exhausted the web, I went to the phones, where I went through the massive series of instructions, "press 1 if you speak Spanish, press 2 if you don't understand what I'm saying, think of a number between 3 and 100 if you want to speak to an agent." This was followed by obnoxious Christmas music, most of which involved the words "let it snow". In spite of my Mom's efforts, I have woven a rich tapestry of swear words into my vocabulary and it is times like these where I use the whole scope and width. As I waited for an agent, the music gently grinding away my brain, a recorded voice would periodically interrupt to assure me that, notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary, I have not been abandoned and an agent will be with me shortly, but if I really want fast service, I should try their helpful web service at-www.NWairdoesn' After what seemed like years, an agent came on. We went on for a long time, whatever sliver of patience I had when I had awoke was long gone. The gist of her message was that, this is a weather delay, NW Air does not do weather, the next flights are all full and the earliest flight we can put you on will be leaving on Christmas Day and will get you to London shortly after your schedule has you departing England, will that do? I danced this particular number with her several times before handing the phone to Karen who started the conversation with "My husband is too frustrated to talk with you and I think he is heading outside to indiscriminately kill someone, hopefully someone involved with the airline business."

Having been unsuccessful with the web and the phone, and not having a carrier pigeon handy, we decided that the only way to get anything done was to go in person. So we fired up the Explorer and went to the airport. I think the radio was playing, "Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread," but it was probably Burl Ives telling us to thumpity thump our butts along. We made it to the airport where there was a sea of people, not looking particularly festive. Every airline had huge lines. It was now about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The line at NW Airline twisted and wound around. Of course, the first class ticket line was virtually empty, as they were probably all sipping champagne somewhere in the airport ("do you have any Grey Poupon?"). I feel a little guilty about this, but my thinking went like, "I'm willing to buy a first class ticket if they'll get us out of here", so we went to the empty line. The ladies at the counter were very helpful, lightning did not strike me down, and it was one of the few things which actually went right for us that day. We went through the options, Portland was down, no flights for us until Christmas, Seattle was worse, Salt Lake might be available, though of course I-84 was closed. We finally came to San Francisco, which had a flight leaving in about 21 hours, I said we'll take it. They looked at me and said, how will you get there? I replied, it's not a bad drive in July.

We were ticketed for SFO, so we headed out of the airport and started our drive. I had been spending the last week at every store asking if they had window deicer to which everyone replied something like, "no, we're out of that, do you need any sunscreen?" As a result, we had to periodically pull off the road to scrape off the accumulating ice and squeeze out the wiper blades so that they acted as something other than flapping Freeze-Pops. It took us about two hours to go round I-205 to I-5, at this rate we'd make it to SFO by Christmas Day. We stopped to fully gas up the car and bought an assortment of candy, cookies, etc... for when we ended up abandoned on a mountain pass. I walked around the car and scraped off the ice. It was at the driver's side back window, as I was scraping a bit of ice, that the entire window came out in my hand. Perhaps I should know this, but its news to me that windows are just glued in and the glue could give out. The gas station guy's knowledge of cars gave out shortly after the gas tank, so we went to Target, where I picked up Gorilla Glue, Duck Tape, rags and plastic. With the help of a Good Samaritan ("Wow, what happened to your window, are they just glued in?") we put the window back in, glue all over the place, I had this picture of arriving at the airport, steering wheel glued to my hands, "you'll have to check your wheel, sir."

We continued the journey, with snow and freezing rain, cars sliding, abandoned autos on the roadside, winding our way South. The temperature hovered helpfully between Freezing and Really Damn Cold, the road varied between Packed Snow, Ice, and Huge Ruts of Snow to Send Your Car into a Spin. Finally, South of Salem, it broke up and was just raining; a lot. It did occur to us that coming back home with our car in San Francisco might be a bit of a challenge, so we called brother John and Vikkie in Eugene and asked about rental cars. We got a rental car, an SUV, but it was not four wheel drive. Some day, someone will tell me why they make SUV's with two wheel drive, but this was not the time to do the research. We took it. Of course, John had checked the traffic report and chains appeared to be required over the pass in California. Heck, I had chains! The ones that I put in the car for Justin!! We were off once more!! With the some idle time in London, I've since come across the Wikipedia Entry for this portion of our drive: "Siskiyou Summit is the highest pass on Interstate 5, at 4,310 ft (1,314 m). This pass is one of the most treacherous in the Interstate highway system. The California side has a more gradual ascent/descent, but the Oregon side of the pass (the side which is more hazardous), the freeway gains (loses) 2,300 feet (701 m) in altitude over a 7 mile (11 km) stretch of freeway. In addition, the pass includes several hazardous curves, and is frequently hit with bad weather (including snow, ice, and fog) during winter storms." I'm kind of glad I didn't read this before heading off.

We made it after midnight to Ashland. We stopped for coffee and I got the car manual out to find out where I should put the chains. The manual said that, I'm serious, for our size of wheel, chains should not be put on the car as the steering and braking systems would be damaged, causing the car to lose control, crash, followed by locusts, plague and pestilence. I think there was a follow-on entry, "Turn back Mr. Barnum . . . " So, we drove on. At the beginning of the mountain pass, there was a stop and a check point, manned by police with flash lights. The conversation went something like, "Do we need chains? We have chains. Do they need to be on the wheels?" "Not if you have all-wheel drive." "It's a rental, I think I read something about all-wheel drive in the manual (thinking, it might have said, "If your model has all-wheel drive.")." "If you have all-wheel drive, you can go." What could I say? "We have all-wheel drive."

The pass is a series of ever increasing heights, followed by plummeting downhills, followed by, "What the hell!!? We're going UP again?" Eventually, it flattened out and the roads were clear, we kicked the car up to 70 until we came to another police stop requiring chains. WTF!!! Again? By this time, we had been trained, "We have all-wheel drive." I didn't even add the words, "I think."

We finally made it to where the roads were clear and the temperature a balmy 33. Once more, we fired up the engine and started whipping down the road at 75, being passed by most of civilization. It was then that the fog came in. This was incredibly thick, London-like fog. The kind that makes driving at speeds more than 20 mph dangerous. We slowed down to about 45, the rest of California slowed down to around 70. This continued for miles. We didn't hit either of the two deer which appeared on the road, I'm still not totally clear how.

Somewhere outside of Sacramento, we were both exhausted. We had been looking for a big store parking lot to park and sleep in, but there was no sign of civilization. We finally stopped at a rest area and parked. This is one of those places which are usually featured in newspaper articles with words like "the bodies of a young couple were found". We said, to hell with it and went to sleep. If there was an axe murderer lurking about, he apparently took a pass on us, possibly because I already looked dead, my head tipped at an uncomfortable angle and drool coming out of my mouth. After a refreshing 45-minute sleep, the somewhat invigorating temperature (right around 35) caused us to wake up and get started.

We continued through fog for another hour, but it finally cleared up, the sun rose and we started to enter the main stream of the Bay Area traffic. It was going very fast, with a huge number of lanes, and lots of cars speeding up and crossing lanes, but there was no snow, ice, fog or darkness, so it felt very good!!! Of course, we had one more little hurdle to cross. Not a big deal for most normal people, but when you have a "Profound Respect For Heights" as I do, the prospect of Very Tall Bridges, particularly, Very Tall Bridges Which Hardly Ever, But Occasionally, Collapse, the concept of the Bay Bridge really wasn't comforting. To top it off, Karen doesn't like tunnels, and the Bay Bridge is One Huge and Very High Span, followed by A Tunnel, followed by An Even Huger and Higher Span. We made it off the bridge, the steering wheel with deep impressions where my hands were locked.

We continued on the roads, "I think it's 80 to 280 to 101", amazed at how rarely (never) there was any mention of an international airport. We FINALLY came to an airport exit, and then found ourselves cruising into the Hertz Return lot. We parked, unlocked our knees, unpacked the car, left the chains (R-675-H2O-235676389387-B-12, if you need any) by the garbage can, I couldn't actually throw them away, and headed to the Terminal in search of the ticket counter and a bar.

We found both, the plane was on time, and, after 18 hours, we sat back, sipped our drinks and smiled.

Christmas Eve in London

Monday, December 22, 2008

Never Give Up... Never Surrender!

Our flight to London was canceled yesterday. NWA told us that MAYBE, just MAYBE we could get out on Christmas Day.

Not acceptable.

Gary, promptly re-booked us on a flight out of San Francisco, where I am currently waiting to board to London via Atlanta. We safely drove out of Portland yesterday.. a major feat in itself which took nearly 2 hours from PDX to the I-205/I-5 junction. We rented an SUV in Eugene... we braved the southern Oregon and Northern California passes and made our way to San Francisco in 18 hours.

We've had 40 minutes of sleep at a rest area in California, but we are very happy to say that we will be in London tomorrow.

A mini miracle!


Thursday, December 11, 2008