Wednesday, May 30, 2012

May 30, 2012: Back in the States

Well, I arrived back in the States yesterday about 7:15 (on the ground anyway) after a long long day. I was a little apprehensive at the airport because I was unable to check in online at the American Airlines website and was afraid they had messed up my ticket. Then at the airport itself the check-in kiosk didn't work either. But when I got into the long "bag drop" line, other people said they had had the same problem. I guess AA's computer system was just on the blink. After a longish wait in line, 30 minutes or so, I had a boarding pass in my hand and went on up to security, so I could get all the icky stuff out of the way and settle in for some food and reading while I waited. My boarding time wasn't until 2:30 and I was into the longish security line by noon, probably. No removal of shoes for most of us, and nothing "on my person" set off any alarms, so it was no trouble getting through the checkpoint once I got to it.

I was disappointed, though, that the secure shopping area didn't have a Marks & Spencer Simply Foods! So I had to use one of my two remaining albacore tuna packets for my lunch, along with some chips, a croissant and some hot tea from Pret a Manger. I roamed around a bit, got a copy of the International Herald Tribune, read a while. Got another cup of tea and a chocolate chip (what else?) cookie from another eatery called Eat. I don't know how good their food offerings are, of course, but their tea isn't as good as Pret a Manger.

The International Herald Tribune, which is the "global edition" of the New York Times, is printed like a regular newspaper in the UK, which means bigger print but also more difficulty in holding it, turning the pages, and so forth. In Malta it's a tabloid-size production, so the print is a lot smaller, but the pages are easier to deal with. I enjoyed reading it the several times I got it, maybe even more than the New York Times itself. I don't know if it actually has some different stories--more world-focused than the Times--or if it's just that it has a lot fewer pages overall, and so it seems more focused and interesting. It's also a better choice for most Americans, I think, because the crossword puzzle is US-tilted. I found the puzzles in the UK newspapers (which I bought in Malta several times) to be really difficult: the clues and answers were of course UK-slanted, which means a lot of the clues were simply meaningless to me, and they don't have as many intersecting words as US puzzles usually do. There's less to fill in, but that also means you have fewer letters from intersecting clues on answers you know to help you fill out the answers you don't know. I found the UK puzzles incredibly difficult. The International Herald Tribune also features the Jumble, which is in many US newspapers, but not in the New York Times.

Anyway, about 2 pm, they opened up the gate for my flight back to the US, so even though it was earlier than our boarding time, I zoomed on over there. As some of you know, I got bumped from an AA flight last year, and I get really nervous about that. So I went through the final check-in and sat down. People just kept coming and coming and coming. As boarding time neared, they told us the flight was full--which didn't do anything to help my anxiety. Then they started boarding with people with difficulties or complications, then first class and business class, and so on. My boarding group was "group 4," which also worried me. I mean, good grief, I checked in more than 3 hours ahead of time. How could I be in such a low boarding group? By the time they boarded group 2, which also included everyone who had a flight booked via British Airways and several other airlines, the gate area was almost empty. But we all seemed to have gotten on, so I guess they filled every seat without bumping anyone.

For some reason, Heathrow was only using one of its two runways at the time, so we had to wait until about 4 pm to actually take off. And then we were finally on our way. It's nice to know that you can't be bumped once you're actually airborne!

The flight itself of course is simply interminable, not so much because 9 hours is so long a time, but because commercial jets are so incredibly cramped and inhuman and claustrophobic. I sort of drifted off quite early in the flight for just a short while, maybe not even 15 minutes, and then after that I stayed awake. I didn't really want to sleep, since it might have made it harder to sleep once I got ready to sleep last night. I kept the little television screen on the back of the seat in front of me going most of the time, watching movies mostly and reading as well. I watched most of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen but missed almost all of the last 20 minutes or so while waiting to go to the bathroom. It's an interesting film which I might have to check out on DVD at some point to watch. Then I tuned into Journey 2: Mysterious Island, a simple-minded adventure show of no particular merit or demerit. Just passing time. Then I watched a movie I'd heard of but forgotten about: This Means War or Terms of War or something like that. It starred Reese Witherspoon as a young executive being pursued by two CIA agents, not as a suspect in a crime, but as a dating prospect. The two agents were best friends, so that was the twist in the plot, as it were. It was light and entertaining.

I finished reading Clare Peake's memoir Under a Canvas Sky and started reading one of my Spanish books, Oscuro bosque oscuro, as well as finishing up with the International Herald Tribune. Except for having to be confined for so long, the flight was tolerable. And the earburds for the movies kept out most of the noise of the other passengers (and sometimes obnoxious toddlers).

We were, I suppose, about 3 hours from landing, when one of the stewardesses came over the PA, asking if there was a doctor or medical professional on board for a medical situation that had arisen. Then as we were taxiing at DFW Airport, the captain came on, asking us all to remain seated after we parked at the jetway, so that the EMTs could come on and deal with the person needing help before the rest of us disembarked. I have no idea what happened of course, but 3 EMTs came on and went toward the back of the jet, and then they came back, along with an elderly couple, but the couple were walking on their own power and weren't being assisted. Who knows?

Then we all got to get on with things. I guess it really only took me about 30 minutes to get through customs and passport control and baggage claim, mostly of course because I walk so fast I was nearer the front of the line than many at the first "stop," which put me ahead for a while anyway. After getting through the final checkpoint--customs--I stopped and got my phone out of my duffle, so I could see if Debbie had called or left a message. The phone didn't beep or anything after I turned it on, so I flipped it open to call her and let her know where I was. But when I flipped the phone open, I saw that I had a text from her. That told me where to head for, and fortunately for her, she had sent it only about 10 minutes earlier, so I knew she hadn't had to be waiting long. Within a few minutes I had found her, and we were off.

We caught up on various things, including our different trips after I got off the ship and she stayed on, on the drive back to Duncanville, and she let me run in at Tom Thumb to get a couple of food items for a light supper that evening, since I hadn't had much to eat on the flight--another tuna packet, a couple of crackers, part of a cookie.

By about nine, I was back at Mom's place. Debbie helped me bring things in, and I gave Mom her scarf and Debbie her thank-you book--a "vintage" mystery by Margery Allingham--and we all visited a bit before Debbie headed on home. Now I look forward to meeting up with her at the coffeeshop and seeing all her photos of Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Venice. Also Florence, since she made the day trip there, and I didn't.

Today I grocery-shopped, visited with Mom, spent some time at the coffee shop--so I could feel like I was back in my "normal" kind of routine.

And of course I drove my truck. It was lonely for me. I love my truck.

The grand adventure 2012 is over, and now summer awaits me.


1. The weather in London was the very best weather of the trip. And that is an amazing thing to be able to say. It was great not to have to wear a windbreaker all the time; it was great to visit Kew Gardens in nice weather.

2. It's also nice to be in London for access to Marks & Spencer grocery food. I have to be frank: deli meat in Malta pretty much stinks. I mean it's edible and all that, but it's not in any sense gourmet. The ham is like the kind of sandwich ham we ate in the '60s: no honey-smoked or brown-sugar-baked or anything like that. Just salty sandwich ham. But M&S in the UK has a much better line of meats: chicken and turkey and ham, and even actual chicken breast already cooked and sliced and ready-to-eat. It's like being a human being again!

3. Another nice thing about London over Malta is having access to coffee shops that give you the option of getting a LARGE hot tea, instead of a paltry 8 or 10 ounce tea cup that lasts about 3 gulps. In addition to Starbucks, which I think I went to in Kew, they have Costa Coffee Shops where you can get a large tea, and even Marks & Spencer will put your tea bag in a large cup if you ask. And it's really grand that Costa and Pret a Manger (but not M&S or Eats) have good quality pyramid-bagged tea, instead of ordinary paper-bagged tea.

4. I may have done all I want to do in Malta, unless I can get someone else to go with me to share it. There are things I haven't seen still, places I wouldn't mind revisiting, but I get tired of being there on my own. London on the other hand has so much that, even on my own, I imagine being back there, as well as other places in the UK. I still haven't been to the Tower, or inside St Paul's. I still haven't wandered around Oxford or gone to York. Or Cornwall!

5. It sounds silly, probably, but I miss hearing English when I travel. Traveling alone can make one feel fairly alien anyway, and when one is not even understanding what's spoken a large part of the time that heightens the alienness. In Malta one hears German and French and other languages, but mostly it's Maltese if it's not English. In England one hears Hindi (I presume), Arabic, French, German, all sorts of things; and of course one hears English with an English accent. But one still knows that one is in England.

6. London hotels are really expensive, at least for this Cockrell Hill boy, even when one is trying to be as economical as possible. One can stay much more cheaply in Malta, but of course there is much less to do.

7. The British Museum rocks! So much history in one place. And Gudea, my old Mesopotamian friend is there. Cool. And the Rosetta Stone. And, at the moment, those Picasso etchings.

8. Big London bookstores are cool. They may not be appreciably bigger than Barnes & Noble, but they are full of different books. The English are reading some of the same books we are, but much of what they read is simply not available here. It's cool to see so many different possibilities.

9. HMV Music Store is amazing. As far as I know there are individual music stores in various places in the US that might be as big as an HMV, but I don't think we have a chain store like HMV left. Tower was probably as close as we got, and it's online only now.

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