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Pip Pip, Cheerio, And All The Other Stuff They Never Really Say in London

June 7th – although honestly, yesterday and today run together a bit because we were up so early and got so little sleep.  It feels like I had about a 20 minute nap between the time we got off the ship and our arrival in London.

So, we arrive at the airport at pretty much the time we are supposed to arrive – about 5 AM.  But guess what?   The bus driver drops us off at the wrong terminal.  Now normally, this would not be a big deal, but we are carrying a TON of luggage (this is a group of 50 people who have been away from home for two weeks – a ton is probably a conservative estimate of the amount of luggage we have), nearly everyone in our group is a senior citizen, and there are several people in our group with difficulty walking.  To make matters worse, apparently, the Barcelona airport isn’t open this early.  There is no one – not even a security guard or anything – to ask about where we find the British Airways terminal.  There are no luggage carts or people to ask for the whereabouts of the luggage carts.  Brighid and I are among the youngest in the group, so we decide to set out to find out where our correct terminal is.  I finally see a man sitting behind the desk of another airline, and I ask him if he knows where the British Airways check in desk is.  He tells me it’s straight up.  I turn around and see a set of escalators, so I assume straight up means up the escalators.  The problem here is that we cannot now find the elevators that will take us straight up with all of this luggage.  Brighid and I set out again to see what we can find, and what we find is someone else who tells us that British Airways is Straight Up, but he actually points us in the direction of the next terminal.  I guess Straight Up in Catalonian means “down that way”. 

We start walking, and even for those of us without walking difficulties, this is a long darn walk!!   When you factor in the 200+ pounds of luggage we are carrying, the walk is even longer.  We finally get to the British Airways desk, and we get in line.  The rest of the group starts drifting in behind us, and Steve asks us if we can tell the woman at the counter to get a wheelchair for Dot, who we assume is still at the other terminal.  But, in just a few minutes, bless her heart, she appears, looking tired and winded – I told you it was a long walk!!!   We figure we better still get a wheelchair, because we don’t know where we go from here to get to the gate, and if the walk is anywhere near what it was just now, there is no way Dot will make the plane to London.

We are finally up to the desk and the first thing I ask is how many bags we can check.  I have an enormously heavy bag that I will carry on if I have to, but I would much rather check it.  She tells me that I can check it – YIPPEEE!!   Something goes right this morning!!   Then we ask for the wheelchair.  I tell her it’s for my mother, who is in the line, but at the back of the line, and has difficulty standing and walking.  She tells me that they are not allowed to request wheelchairs for someone who is not checking in, but since she will eventually be checking in, she will call.  Unfortunately, the office that handles the wheelchairs does not open until 6 AM, so maybe by the time Dot and Russ get up to the counter, the office will be open and we can get the chair.  UGH.

Fortunately, now that everyone seems to be awake here at the airport, check in seems to go pretty quickly, and there is soon a wheelchair for Dot, and we are on our way to the gate.  Thank goodness for the wheelchair – now where’s mine??? Holy cow, this is such a LONG walk!  

We are finally on the plane, and we are finally one step closer to home.  Are you detecting a pattern here, though?   We seem to be in a comedy of errors this morning.  We arrive at Heathrow, alive and well, and we gather together to head out to the buses.  Make that bus.  Yep – only one.  They try as hard as they can to fit all of the luggage on the bus, but it’s not going to work.  There is no way we can squeeze everything on.  Steve brings his one bag with all of the tour information on the bus and it gets put on an empty seat in the back of the bus.  A few other people have retrieved their smaller pieces and they have them back there as well, filling up the few empty seats with them, but there is still no way to get all of the luggage onto this bus.  Steve talks with our bus driver and the tour guide, and the arrangement is made that another vehicle will come to pick up the luggage, Steve will hop on the Tube, and he will meet us at lunch.  It seems like another crisis has been dealt with and we are soon on our tour of London. 

Our tour guide Liz is so funny – she has a dry, sarcastic sense of humor that I can really appreciate.  Dave, our bus driver, also gets in on the act once in a while, and they really are entertaining and informative.  We see some of the highlights of London, including Harrods, the London Eye, the Tower Bridge, Prince Albert Hall, the Prince Albert Memorial, the Tower of London, and a few other things.  Then we head to the Prince of Wales Pub for lunch.  Oh no.  Guess what?   There are 20 steps to get up to the room where we are supposed to have lunch, so as we go into the restaurant, Dot and Russ tell us goodbye, as there is no way Dot can climb all those steps 🙁   Lunch turns out to be more of a tea – tea sandwiches, chips and some small pastries – and that’s really disappointing when we see the group coming in behind us getting a full roast beef lunch.  I eat a couple of small slices of ham off of the tea sandwiches, Brighid has the tray pass her by a couple of times without getting anything, so we leave the restaurant nearly as hungry as when we arrived.  Steve has decided not to meet us for lunch afterall, and he has gone on to the hotel, presumably to guard our luggage with his life.

After lunch at the pub, we drive past St. James Place and Kensington Gardens, then we go past the horse guards, #10 Downing Street, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.  We stop near Westminster Abbey and have nearly  2 hours of free time.  Dot decides to stay on the bus – and this is one of the few occasions where someone doesn’t give her a hard time about that.  Russell at first decides to stay on the bus, but then decides to join Brighid and I.  He wants to go see the horse guards and get his picture taken with them, so we find out exactly how to get back that way, and we decide to stop in the Westminster Abbey gift shop to get postcards and then head towards the horse guards.  Okay, remember this being the day when nothing goes right?   Yeah.  Well, we get all the way to where the horse guards are supposed to be and they are gone 🙁   They have closed up early today because they are expecting a visit from Princess Anne later in the evening in preparation for the Queen’s birthday celebration this coming weekend.  I know Russell is disappointed, and it doesn’t seem like we can catch a break today.

We walk back towards Westminster and I take a couple of pictures of Brighid and Russell in front of Big Ben and a few of Westminster.  We head back to the bus, and I ask where there is a Starbucks, since I know they have them here.  We find out from Liz that they do not have sugar free syrup here.  UGH.  I make a crack about how there must not be any fat people in all of Europe, and turn to see our 300+ pound bus driver.  Ooops. 

Dave takes us out past Buckingham Palace – twice -and we see Trafalgar Square before we head out to Sussex, where our hotel is.  It’s a long drive out there – about 2 hours – and Liz is going to stay here in London, so we drop her off and we’re on our way.

Our hotel is The Copthorne Hotel near Gatwick airport, where we will be departing from in the morning.  The exterior of the hotel puts you in the mindset of an old English country house, and it pretty much lives up to that.  The rooms are not lavishly appointed, but they are comfortable – and honestly, we are all so tired, they could have given us a cot in the parking lot and we would have been happy.  When we arrive, Steve is no where to be found, but a guy from the front desk comes out and starts giving us keys and room assignments.  Our luggage is in the lobby when we arrive, so we head in to find our room and put our bags away.  We are starving, so we head out to find out what there is to eat.  They  have a pub, which opened at 4, but serves pub grub – burgers and the like.  There are two other restaurants – one a more formal restaurant, which does not open until 7, and another, more casual, which opens at 6.  Just outside of that restaurant there is a small courtyard with lavish landscaping and a small pond.  The restaurant manager gets us a couple of pots of tea, and we sit out here and enjoy the first peace and quiet of the day before we head in to dinner.

Now, at this point, it is all I can do to keep from getting hysterical with laughter.  We have come thousands of miles, we have been to 7 different countries, and we arrive here, surrounded by the quaint English countryside, where the restaurant is having – wait for it – AMERICA NIGHT!!!   We are sitting in this lovely English Garden, watching as an Asian man hangs American flags and Uncle Sam cut outs around the restaurant – this is funny, people!

America night features an American style buffet – corn on the cob, spare ribs, chicken, and all the fixins.  I can’t really eat my money’s worth at a buffet, so it’s not a good idea for me to get it, and Brighid was hankering for some pub grub, so she doesn’t want to settle for a traditional American meal.  Brighid ends up ordering a Caesar salad and I order the chicken curry.  Dot and Russ are going to brave the buffet.  Brighid’s salad looks really good, and has nice chunks of bacon in it, so she’s very happy, and I am really surprised at how really good the chicken curry is.  I was a little afraid to order it, but it’s quite good and was the perfect choice for me.  Dot and Russ sample some of the buffet offerings with mixed results.  Some of it is too spicey (they went for a Southwestern flavor, but leaned too heavily on the spices) and the ribs are a bit tough.  There is gammon on the carving station, but initially, we don’t know what gammon is.  Turns out, it’s pretty much the same as ham.  They have a nice selection of salads and desserts, and we all leave pretty full.  I am grateful to get back to the room and get ready for bed, and even more grateful that there is a language I understand on TV!!   It doesn’t matter much, though, because I am asleep before I ever make it through one show.

We are up at 5 AM, and we are the first to arrive at the restaurant for the full English breakfast.  It is very traditional breakfast, with fried tomatoes, mushrooms, bangers, potatoes, eggs, bacon, etc.  They also have all types of cereals, tons of fresh fruit, yogurts, deli meats and cheeses, and all kinds of fresh baked breads.  They really provided a nice breakfast. 

I don’t know why we are up so early, because we arrive at Gatwick and check in with still 2 hours to wait until our flight takes off.  There are a bunch of shops in the waiting area of Gatwick, so we pick up a few Harrod’s souvenirs, and we check out a few other shops.  There is a Starbucks here – and YES, they have sugar free syrup!   Not only that, but the barista is about the cutest guy we’ve seen the whole trip.  He is tall, has beautiful blue eyes, gorgeous hair, and I start thinking that this is Brighid’s type!   She barely acknowledges him.  There goes not only my chance for tall, beautiful grandchildren with normal sized noses, but also my annual holidays to the UK to visit them 🙁  

So now, with my venti, nonfat, 7 pump, sugar free vanilla latte in hand, we went back and sat down where Dot and Russ were waiting until it was time for her wheelchair escort to the gate.  We chatted a little with their friends Ken and Eileen, and then we decided to head to the gate ourselves, not knowing if we would be allowed to go the same way Dot and Russ were going.  We still had about an hour to wait, and when we got over to the gate, we found out that you are not allowed to wait at the gate until 30 minutes before take off.  Brighid and I head to the bathroom, and I buy another souvenir – yep, in the bathroom!   They have chewable toothbrushes!   Loved them.

We walked back out and got in line to wait for the gate to open up.  When they do, we take a seat right next to the door so we can hop right up when it’s our turn.  A British Airways employee comes over and asks if she can do a survey with us about the day and the experience so far, so we do.  Before long, we are sitting on the plane.

We keep watching for Dot and Russ, and we don’t see them anywhere.  The plane is getting more and more full, and it’s very close to time to take off, and they are still not here.  I’m starting to get worried, and then I see Eileen and Ken coming.  I figure Dot and Russ must be right behind them, because Eileen also had to wait for a wheelchair escort, but then Eileen comes back to where Brighid and I are and says that there’s a problem, and they won’t let Dot and Russ get on the plane.  I immediately go into panic mode, but I’m not sure what to do.  If I get off the plane, all of my luggage is on here, and what will happen to us?   Will they let us off the plane?   Just as I made my mind up to get up and go up front and see what we should do, I see them getting to their seats.  Whatever the crisis is (we find out later that they have lost Russell’s boarding pass), it has been dealt with and appears to be resolved.  WHEW.  I love them, but I am so ready to go home, and was not looking forward to another night in Europe!!

This is going to be a long flight – more than 8 hours, but when we arrive in Orlando, it will only be 3 in the afternoon, so this is going to be a marathon day.  I watched a couple of movies – Ghost Rider with Nicholas Cage; The Last Time with Michael Keaton and Brendan Fraser; and The Number 23 with Jim Carrey.  I also manage to catch a few sitcoms in the bargain.  They kept us well fed and well beveraged on British Airways – I absolutely have no complaints about how they treat you on this airline.

Back in Orlando, we board a bus heading back to Solavita, and the last of the things that went wrong has gone wrong – there has been a leak in the bathroom and there is some major clean up to be done and a plumber to be called.

We are fortunate enough to be here for an evening shuttle launch, and it’s just beautiful, and Dot and I head out to pick up a few things at the supermarket.  We intend to pick up a pizza on the way home, but the pizza parlor is closed.  I don’t mind because I am so tired!  

We head to bed by 10 o’clock, and I am up at 4, Brighid at 6 – still on European time.  We leave for the airport at 10:30 for the last flight of the vacation – the one going home!

Barcelona – A Taste of the Gaudy Gaudi

We wake oh so early this morning to head up to breakfast at 6:30.  We have to eat a quick meal and head back to the cabin one last time for our carry on bags.  We arrived early at the Rendezvous Lounge, which is where our group is supposed to meet, and we sit to people watch.  About half an hour before our schedule debarkation time, Dot and Russ arrive, and we find out we can actually leave the ship with them now.  This is the fastest we’ve ever gotten off of a ship, but eevn after we got our luggage, we still have to stand outside for more than an hour and a half to wait for the tour buses to arrive.  The tour guide – Fiza – tells us the buses are there, but they have to come in order, and the ship’s buses have priority.  I’m not buying it because well after most of the other buses have gone, we’re still standing on the pier waiting in a virtually empty parking lot with plenty of room for our buses. 

The tour of Barcelona is really fairly quick, but we do have the opportunity to stop at the Church of the Holy Family.  The church, known in Barcelona as La Sagrada Familia, is one of the most well known buildings in Spain, and the original architect was Antoni Gaudi.  The story of Gaudi’s life is so painful, and when you look at his Church, you can almost see how he must have struggled with his life.  He was so well reknowned in Barcelona, and he was commissioned to do many things in the city.  He was a devout Catholic, though, and in his later years he abandoned much of his commissioned work to concentrate on the Church of the Holy Family.  He lost much of his family, and the city of Barcelona fell into economic hardship, causing Gaudi to withdraw more and more.  He stopped talking to reporters and supporters and focused solely on this one project.  Gaudi was one day run over in the streets of Barcelona by a tram, and because of his raggedy appearance, he was left in the streets to die, people thinking he was a pauper.  He was eventually removed from the streets and taken to a hospital for the poor.  No one in the hospital recognized him, and he lay without treatment until the next day, when friends who had noticed he was nowhere to be found started a search for him.  They begged him to let them take him to a good hospital, but he refused, saying he was meant to be there among the poor.  Gaudi died 3 days later, a passing that gave way to a city wide mourning.  He is buried inside his masterpiece – La Sagrada Familia – but the work remains unfinished.  Gaudi did not work from blue prints to create his vision at the church, so the city has now taken over the restoration and completion of the project.  There is a charge to go in to see the Church, with the proceeds from ticket sales paying for the Church project.

If you have ever been in an Italian or Spanish restaurant, and seen the empty wine bottles on the tables with the dripping wax candles stuck in them, then you have seen La Sagrada Familia.  The parts that Gaudi completed look just like that dripping wax candle.

We headed out to the Gothic Quarter after our trip to La Sagrada Familia, and we did a walking tour through the quarter.  They are celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi in Barcelona, so there is a flea market in the quarter, and the courtyard of the Churches are decorated lavishly with flowers.  The tour is lovely, but we are SO exhausted!

Omni tours decided to provide us with lunch, since there were a few screw-ups during the trip, and Fiza takes us to a restaurant called Oben.  The food here is so fresh and so delicious – it’s almost worth extending the trip these extra days just to have had this lunch.  I want to tell you that my favorite part of the lunch was the scrambled eggs – and I tell you this because I do not like eggs, and I have been unable to create the dish at home.  I know there were slivers of red bell pepper in the eggs, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what the seasoning was.  That was my appetizer, and it was followed by a main dish of fish that was so moist and so well seasoned, I can still taste how good it was!   If you’re ever in Barcelona, look up Oben – very good food.

We learn here that they do not really speak Spanish, but a language called Catalan.  That’s interesting, because you see signs that sort of resemble Spanish, but the spellings are different – that’s because is Catalan!

The hotel we are booked at is really in the center of things.  It is the Hotel Catalonia Albinoni.  It’s definitely nothing special.  The room is small and pretty dreary, although the bathroom is very pretty, all done in granite.  The only channel on TV that we can understand is CNN, where we learn that the Pope was nearly attacked as his car drove through St. Peter’s Square.  Everything else is in Spanish.  We’re not really sure what to do about dinner.  We were told that the Spanish in Barcelona tend to have much later hours, since daylight lasts much later here.  A lot of the restaurants don’t even open until 8 PM, and we have to be up at oh dark thirty, so we don’t want to wait until so late to eat dinner.  Brighid decides she isn’t even really hungry for a full dinner, and I can eat protein bars and crackers, so we decide to head to the department store down the street.  There is supposed to be a supermarket on the lower level, so we figure we’ll go check it out and at least find a snack or two.

On our way down the block, we pass some interesting shops – Swarovski Crystal, a chocolate shop, and a couple of stands like you would see at a flea market where they were selling linens and things.  There are two girls giving away samples of gazpacho on the street, which we skip, and then we walk dead into a huge protest.  It seems that everywhere we go in Europe, someone is protesting something!   This protest actually works out pretty well for us.  The intersection at the end of this street is really usually crowded with cars and exceedingly busy.  Because there is an army of police here and a mob of protestors, the street is closed and we can walk right over to the shop!

The shop itself is WAY overpriced for everything, so we head down to the supermarket part of things.  We wander around and see what’s familiar – and of course everything is, because, after all, they need toilet paper and trash bags in Spain too.  Brighid isn’t sure what she wants, and then I spot rotisserie chicken, hot and ready to go, so she gets a quarter chicken and a bottle of soda.  I find what has eluded me the entire trip – PRETZELS!!   I pick up the package of pretzels and head off to find some cream cheese, then we get a bottle of water and head out.  We easily cross back across the street (Up the Republic!   Labor unfair!   Stop animal testing!   Keep blocking that street and we’ll support whatever cause ya got!!), and head back to the hotel.  I have to say that while I am completely unimpressed with the hotel itself, the location couldn’t be more ideal for a tourist, especially if you have no car or any other mode of transportation handy.

We get back to our room, and Brighid realizes she has no silverware or napkins, and heads down to the lobby where she makes a valiant attempt at acquiring those items.  There is definitely a communication barrier here, and it’s interesting to me that more people here do not speak English.  I don’t mean to sound all angry American or anything like that, but in every other country, the people we have encountered have all had a working knowledge of the English language, so I am surprised that the people in Barcelona – or at least those at this hotel – do not.  It’s not that I EXPECT them to speak English, I’m just surprised, based on our experiences so far in every other country, that they don’t.  Anyway, Brighid comes back with a fork, couldn’t get them to understand what a napkin was, and resigns herself to having to wipe the chicken grease off on the bedsheets (I’m kidding.  You know that, right?).  Now it’s my turn – I need a wakeup call.  I phone the front desk and, of course, I do not know how to say Wake Up in Catalonian, and the man at the desk does not know that I need him to understand it in English, so we do not have a wake up call by the end of my nearly 10 minute conversation.  Thank goodness, Dot and Russ are able to give us a call to wake us when oh dark thirty rolls around, otherwise, Brighid and I would now be permanent residents of the Hotel Catalonia!

I have a terrible night sleeping here.  The daylight hours really do go on an awfully long time, and at home, I usually fall asleep to the sounds of David Letterman or Craig Ferguson.  I can’t fall asleep to the sounds of no TV with the daytime still streaming in the window, so I am awake and getting ready to go when we get our wake-up call.  We have to be downstairs and ready to go to the airport at 4:30 AM, and there is supposed to be a breakfast waiting for us when we get downstairs.  There are 50 of us, so although the breakfast included in the stay doesn’t start until 7, the hotel agrees to provide a meal for us.  You can audibly hear the disappointment when people come down, exhausted from the long vacation and tired from the long day in Barcelona, and see that the breakfast meal they have provided for us is four slices of white bread – two with two slices of cheese on them, two with two slices of ham on them.  Some people got an orange, some a banana, and we all got some kind of juice.  The ham, which I try to eat, is a slimey, nasty piece of deceased hog of some sort – almost like one of those canned hams, but not cooked – cold, with the hog jelly all around it.  The cheese is not something I like, although some people say the only part of the meal they are able to enjoy is the cheese.  There is a ton of fruit and juices left behind on the tables in the lobby as well.  I guess they’ve never heard of doughnuts, croissants, muffins, or other sorts of typical quick breakfast foods in Barcelona – but we were warned that most people here are just now going to bed at this hour of the morning, so maybe this is really akin to  a Barcelona midnight snack??

The bus ride to the airport is uneventful, but wait until I get to Day 14 and you’ll see how our arrival at the airport was mucked up!