Sunday, July 11, 2010

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

I know it's only been three weeks since school let out (please don't let me rant about the displays of school supplies now available in's been THREE FLIPPIN' WEEKS, PEOPLE...I won't know what the kids will need for another EIGHT weeks but by that time snowboots will be out. Argh!!).

OK, let's try that again: three weeks since school ended and I have already used up my vacation time. But it was fascinating and luxurious and fattening and wonderful. And it's also the content for the next several postings here.

Day 1 of vaca I was given a travel journal by my cousin (the official trip coordinator) and I jotted notes on some events, but there are gaps...and deep feelings of guilt. I want closure, I want completion. So we will try to make up the missing bits online, yes?

So let the story unwind, starting as it was written...

17 June into the 18th: The adventure begins. Middle son, B., and I are taken through Philly's rush-hour traffic on the Schuykill to the airport. Hugs and kisses on the curb of Terminal D and we enter the building to queue up to check our bags--a delightfully short queue (author's note: this vacation involves an extensive amount of queuing. Be prepared.)

Security flows rather smoothly too, despite the "Traveler Groups" the TSA tries to funnel us into: Experienced Travelers, Casual Travelers, Families. B handles himself adroitly, slipping out of his sneaks, assessing the required number of bins, stepping confidently through the metal detector.

We stroll Terminals D and E in search of dinner, deciding which evil we can stand to ingest, and manage to buy a tasty and moderately-priced meal at Chickie & Pete's; my turkey wrap was surprisingly generous. I will be thankful.

The flight to DC is, as expected, a matter of more time on the tarmac at either end than spent in the air. And I find the Embraer aircraft anxiety-provoking, the clunks and rumbles leading me to wonder if the plane leaves a trail of parts in its wake. I am also surprised to observe my son's head grazing the ceiling in the aisle; obviously not a craft for any passenger taller that 5'6".

We pull into the gate at IAD next to an Aeroflot (!), which stuns me; I thought they NEVER leave Russia. We notice they still have those unnerving trolleys coursing between the terminals. Ugh! (Why do they have those two flanges on the roof? What's with that?) We are able to take the new Aerotrain to the international terminal, though; a twin to the one in Zurich, minus the cowbells and the video kiss from Heidi. We speculate what the US equivalent might be; maybe Obama giving a high-five over the sound of traffic?

In the international terminal--after B points out the Asian general in olive drab accompanied by his four black-suited bodyguards with briefcases--we wander to our gate to find our flight has been seriously overbooked. I was grateful we had seats. Once aboard, I forgot how cozy Economy class is; like, DO NOT drop anything under your seat as you will be unable to retrieve it. I consider my oldest's proposed prank of toggling together all the tray tables to prevent the head of the passenger in front of me from landing in my lap.

Kindly enough, the young man sitting next to me offers to trade places with B so we can sit together--pleasant compensation for THE WORST AIRLINE MEAL in history. (They claim it was chicken.) When the salad and the shrink-wrapped brownie are the highlights of the dinner...I am grateful for the relatively tasty airport sandwiches of the evening before...because we are eating dinner at 11 pm. Of course. Yeesh.

Heathrow is clean and modern and rather empty for an airport undergoing major renovations. Terminal 1 seems miles and miles from Passport Control, as we walk in the stream of travelers from our 767. A couple of questions, some vigorous stamping of the passports, and we are free to get our bags and stroll through "Nothing to Declare" into the terminal and up to a husky gray-haired man named Harvey, our limo driver. A nice chap--perhaps the only Jewish limo driver in the UK?--who chats about the landmarks as he delivers us to our hotel. I realize that the major expense of visiting London will not be food or even accommodations; it will be transportation.

The hotel, Chancery Court, is an antique building with a central cobbled courtyard. Very British, very nostalgic. We score some keys to my parents' room only to learn they have just stepped out. Hungry and with limited funds we buy fresh sandwiches on crusty bread at my new fav eatery: Pret a Manger. For less than L5! We eat in the sun at a table in the courtyard of our hotel, hoping to spot grandparents and cousins if they arrive. No show.

Let's go around the block to at least see a bit of London while we wait, I suggest to B, who agrees. We head out the courtyard, turn left. Down the block, cross the street, just past the corner. Suddenly a small figure in pink squeals my name and clasps me firmly about the knees: my cousin's four-year-old daughter, A. Forming a circle around us are my mom and dad, my cousin, my uncle. And we didn't even have to try to find each other. We take this as a sign; this will be the vacation of perfect coincidences.

That afternoon we divide into groups and head for the Underground: B & granddad are sent to the Science Museum while "the girls" go to the V&A for a quilt show. Back at the hotel we will meet my cousin's beau, L, a native Londoner. I expect Hugh Grant--a dandy, willowy and anxious--but he is compact (built like the members of our family), casual, warmhearted, and witty. As we walk to a nearby Indian restaurant, our octet morphs into shifting pairs and trios, the conversation never lagging. Another good sign; we shall get on well. The fact that we down curry and korma with great enthusiasm bodes well too; everyone is open to adventures.

As we are arriving in London in staggered groups, the hotel rooms have been booked in stages. My cousin, uncle, and A had been housed with my parents, but now they vacate to a suite and B & I move in with my folks. We collect too many hotel keys and raid the Clubroom for tea and bottled water. The pillows are down, squidgy and insubstantial, but I don't care. My sleep will be deep, and I must be up by 6 AM to meet the flight of my other two children, C & J.

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