THE GREAT EUROPEAN TREK
(Originally sent to Friends Mon, 9 Sep 1996)
Hello! We just flew back in from Zurich and boy are our arms tired. Old Joke Zone. Jetlag has been getting the better of me--it's amazing how much time you find in a day when you wake up at 2am and can do nothing but read and write. This message comes to you as I struggle to keep awake for my next class (in a coupla hours), so with impaired concentration I'll tell you what's been going on these past six weeks.
COUNTRIES VISITED (map is pre-Fall Berlin Wall, sorry)
We had a look at England for a week, then ferried over to Denmark to see old friends there, then eurorailed over to Paris via Koln (Germany). Then saw friends in the Loire region of France before training over to the Basque country in Spain. From there, a trip to Italy and finally Germany.
This page is to tell you about interesting stuff that happened in:
On July 27, we departed Sapporo Chitose, went via Seoul (the cheapest route to avoid the debacle down south when you use Tokyo Narita Airport--an extra $500 per person round trip onto your travel expenses), and found ourselves in London by nightfall. Through customs at 9 pm, we managed after an hour's finagling to get our rental car.
That was where the fun began (yes, for those who remember my college days'"Tapestries of Experience" ...this is beginning to shape up like one of them).
I got on the M4 motorway at 10 pm and tried to find the ringroad around London. I wanted to get up to Stamford, 90 miles north, home of the matriarch of the Aldwinckle clan, "Aldwonker", before jetlag set in.
We were driving on the Japanese side of the road (the same as the English), we were in a huge Nissan, I knew the roads, and we had a full tank of gas. What could go wrong?
My memory, of course. It has been ten years since I was in England and things were a bit hazy. I remembered that to get to the ringroad from the M4, one had to go towards London. That is, from Gatwick Airport. We had landed at Heathrow, which is INSIDE the ringroad, and before I knew it, instead of avoiding the biggest urban area in Britain we were right in the middle of it.
Ah well, I rationalized, I can at least show Aya some of the sights.
I looked over. Out like a light. She wasn't gonna be interested in much of anything right now, so I instead decided to call our hotel in Stamford, which had a curfew, to tell them we'd be late. I stopped at a convenience store and decided to get some change for the phone.
I walked up to the counter and asked for some change. The man behind it said I had to buy something first. So I picked up a Mars bar and handed him a fiver. He said that that five pound note (sent to me as an Xmas present by Aldwonker about a decade ago) was an old one and no longer in circulation. So I pulled out a tenner. Same problem.
I realized that almost all my British cash, assiduously hoarded for just such an occasion, was in fact now worthless, and my emergency stash of cash (leftover from my travels) was in Canadian, US, Singaporean, NZ and Hong Kong dollars, as well as in Yen, Korean Won, and West German Marks. Fortunately, Aldwonker had kept up her Yuletide generosity and I found a newer note that the clerk would change, and found my fist full of pound coins and pence.
I asked if he had a phone in the store. He said yes, but it didn't take coins. What did it take? Calling cards. Do you sell them? Yes. Okay, sell me one. Sorry, we're sold out.
I sighed. Okay, do you know where there is a phone that would take coins? Yes, around the corner outside.
I went outside and found two phone booths--covered in graffiti and reeking of urine (as any tight outdoor space does in England, for some reason). Sure 'nuff, this took coins. I popped in a pound coin and clunk. Nothing happened. I looked inside and saw that yet another British Telecom phone had choked on cash and now it was just eating money. I went around to the phone booth behind. No joy. It only took calling cards.
So I called the operator and told her about the phone booth that ate New York. She apologised and asked for my address so she could reimburse me. I said I'd be out of the country in a week and that wouldn't help. So she offered to place the call for me and credit me a pound. I said great. What's the number. "01780-56525", I said.
I got through to Stamford, alright, but some bloke at some foundry answered. I realized that my memory was again failing me. 56525 was the number of my best friend when I lived in Cambridge in 1977. So I got the operator back and said "Same area code, 60412 this time".
"That number doesn't exist, sir," came her reply.
I realized that 60412 was OUR home number when we lived in Cambridge. So I asked her to consult her directory for a Ms Kathleen Aldwinckle in Stamford.
"Sorry, no listing."
"Okay, how about a 'Crown Hotel' in Stamford?"
"Sorry, can't seem to find that, either."
"The computer's just gone down."
I shrugged and asked the operator if she believed in Force Majeure. She said she did, and we had a brief and really quite amusing philosophical conversation, in the middle of the night, London, with sleep wanting it's due but the Cosmic Joker calling the shots.
Finally, I asked if she would find ANY Aldwinckles in the Stamford area. How many could there be? She found one--my uncle Bill. I got his number, called, and told him what was what and he said he'd call and straighten things out on his end. Fine.
"Now then David, how late are you going to be, then?" I said about an hour and a half or so, once we get out of London. He said that he would tell the hotel that. We said bye for now and I returned to the car.
I found Aya wide awake and worried. I asked her what was wrong. "I thought you'd been killed! Where have you been?" I nodded in empathy. All told, this little shebang took about 45 minutes to settle, and closer to midnight was not a good time to be in this area. The dim streetlights were piss yellow and the buildings were a puke grey, there were rough people all around and walls sprayed with swastikas and "Anarchy A"s and it was dark and she couldn't speak the language. We got the hell out of there and found a sign for the route A1 North to follow.
However, TRAVELERS' ADVISORY FOR THOSE DRIVING IN LONDON:
DON'T DO IT.
London is very poorly signposted, and before you know it, you hit another one of those infermal roundabouts which not only distorts your sense of direction, but also gives you a choice between Golder's Green, Grantchester Meadows, and Hampstead Heath. Blowed if you know which will take you north! I managed to get on the inner ring road--the A47, and got as far as Wembley before
we got stuck in a traffic jam. At midnight in London there was a traffic jam! When we got out of that, we realized we weren't too far away from Heathrow Airport. So we went back to Heathrow, having only lost two hours in London for a trip up north that should have taken that much time to begin with. We arrived at the Crown Hotel around 2:20 am.
It was shut.
I rang the night bell, knocked on the window, even shouted through the letterbox "OPEN UP, WE HAVE A ROOM!" but got no response after about 25 minutes of trying.
We then had two options:
1) sleep in the car with two children (Amy 2 years ten months, Anna one year), or
2) call Uncle Bill again and ask for help.
There were drunk yobs around chatting up and feeling up their dates in mini-skirts (this was Friday night, after all!) scarfing down fish and chips and pukka pies, so option one was definitely out. I found a phone booth and called Bill.
"They've locked us out of the hotel, Bill! They didn't wait up for us."
"Well, David, that's your fault. You said you'd be there in ninety minutes and it's been three hours. You can't expect them to wait up all night for you."
I sighed and held my tongue. "Bill, I have two children and a wife nearing hibernation with nowhere but a car to sleep. It's cold and damp outside. Do you have any suggestions?" Put the ball in his court. Go on, invite us!
"Well then, you'll just have to come over here, then. You can have my bed."
And that's how we finished out our first night in England. In Bill's bed. We woke up the next morning, had a chat, and saw old 92-year-old Aldwonker the next day in her flat.
GENERAL IMPRESSIONS OF ENGLAND, TO ROUND OUT THIS FIRST INSTALLMENT
Has anyone reading this watched a US TV program called SLIDERS? It's all about four people who invent this dimension jump which enables them to "slide" between alternate earths. They spend the whole series trying to get back home.
That's precisely what this whole trip felt like--a dimension jump.
I have lived in England (Cambridge and Bristol) for a total of two years, and have gotten a faceful of it. One of my friends in Germany, who himself came to Britain as a lad 35 years ago and still makes occasional trips, put it well: "The country's like a museum--nothing really ever changes." That's what I thought, living there in 1977 and 1986.
But now, 1996, everything was different. There are pound coins and phone cards. Adverts on the telly and billboards are flashier and more "Americanized". Stores are actually trying to make a profit and giving consumers more incentives to buy--including staying open on weekends. The newspapers are in color and the ink doesn't rub off on your fingers anymore. There are far more minorities, and, forgive the expression, people of colour are even newscasters; gone are the days of WASPy Angela Rippon. People eat with their fingers and don't resist foreign food as long as it's salty. The British athletes in the Olympics looked no different from the American. Nobody young spoke clearly. Pubs allowed children in and didn't serve Greene King beer anymore. Even the buildings looked cleaner and less dingy--which is something that NEVER happened in the England I remembered.
For better or worse, it was jarring, and I couldn't find my way around to my old haunts in Cambridge any longer. I had my first dose of senility at age 30.
ONE MORE TANGENT--AN INTERNATIONAL VIEW OF THE OLYMPICS
We had the fortune to be in several countries watching the Olympics, and there were events that I had never even heard of getting great coverage--depending on the strong suits of each place we were in. In Japan, the favorite sports were swimming relays, men's gymnastics, and judo. In South Korea, it was handball and sharpshooting! (We watched the Koreans crush the Germans in handball, but lose to the Chinese in guns.) In England it was track and field, until runner Langford Christie got disqualified in the 100 meters for three false starts--and Aldwonker switched it off in disgust. In Denmark it was some event I've never even heard of--left-handed smokeshifting or something like that--and the Danes took the Gold, of course!
But anyway, globetrotting during the Olympics was fascinating, and I was fortunate enough to watch the Koreans go into paroxysms of joy when a North Korean beat Japan's favorite daughter "Yawara" in Judo for the gold. Japan was ashamed of it's performance, South Korea and Denmark (with properly-adjusted expectations) seemed pretty satisfied with what they got.
And England? Well, they were English about it all. Even the operator (I got a really good one) I talked to when I lost that pound in the phone said, "Are you American?"
"Yes, you lot are ahead of us in gold medals, aren't you. Typical."
Yes, I replied, and the Russians are ahead of us. I know how you feel.
She laughed and credited me the pound.
Back in Sapporo
(on to the next essay in the series)
Copyright 1996-2012, Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan