September 14th, 2012

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So, there was Europe...

I didn't announce it widely, on the "don't tell the world that you're away from your house" theory, but Kate and I have been planning a trip to Europe for a good six months now. That's done now -- we headed out on August 31st and returned on Sept 11th -- and it was a fine and fascinating time.

There are going to be a whole bunch of LJ entries coming, chronicling the trip. For once, I actually took a fair number of photos, so those will be heavily cut-tagged. I'm starting to assemble that now, but for anyone who is curious, a fair chunk of the story of the trip can be found (in reverse chronological order) in this Picasa album of cryptic pictures.

Anyway -- that's why I was semi-incommunicado for a couple of weeks, and why I've been heavily distracted for the past month. And the travelogue starts next...
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Europe -- Friday and The Luggage Incident

The trip started on Friday, August 31st: we planned to do the overnight flight to London, leaving Friday evening and arriving Saturday morning.

We had decided to splurge and do this direction in Business Class -- frighteningly expensive, but gave us a prayer of getting a few hours' sleep on the flight. This made Airport Life *much* cushier: we got separate lines all over the place, and generally got treated much better than the Cattle Class that I'm used to. So we got to go right up to the baggage check, and spent several minutes chatting with the lady behind the counter as she dealt with our luggage. It was all quite friendly and relaxing, and that was the problem: we weren't paying quite enough attention.

The thing is, while they have a number of counters, and a whole bunch of checkin kiosks, they have far fewer printers -- these things all share a few printers. So the lady at the counter printed out our luggage tags, went over to the printer, grabbed the top two tags, put them on our suitcases, and sent us on our way.

You can see where this is going.

As we got to Security, I happened to look at our boarding pass envelope, with the bag-claim tickets attached to it. There was the one with Kate's name, going to LHR. And there was one with the name of some dude I didn't recognize (who, we hypothesized, had checked in at one of the kiosks at the same moment), going to AUS.

Uh-oh.

We ran back to the counter, only to find that the lady who had helped us was nowhere to be found. The rest of the staff spent half an hour looking for her, but it eventually transpired that she caught the mistake even before we did. Problem is, the suitcase was already heading down to the airplane by then. So she had dashed down to the tarmac and spent half an hour digging around in the plane to Austin, TX, trying to find my suitcase. (She was quite rumpled by the time she got back to the counter.) This was not made any easier by the fact that it was a new suitcase, with no name tag on it. Sadly, she didn't manage to find it, and the plane departed for Texas with my bag still aboard, but she got points for trying. So I described it -- fortunately, I had picked up a habit from my late mother-in-law, and wrapped five brightly-colored Velcro cable ties around the handle, making it easy to recognize if you know what you're looking for. She filed a report in gory detail, told us to go to the baggage claim as soon as we landed in Heathrow, and that was that.

That mild crisis aside, the flight itself was lovely. Business Class was fairly decadent. The food was surprisingly decent -- I had a Shrimp and Scallop Curry for dinner, plus a glass of wine, a bottle of beer, and a glass of port. (The prospect of no driving for 10 days did have its perks.) I spent an hour or so playing Bejeweled 2 on the screen in front of me; I thought about watching a movie, but Kate prevailed on me to try to sleep. I largely failed in that, but at least got to doze on the lie-nearly-flat seat. (The seat itself was a glorious toy with its own control panel: five preset positions plus manual controls for virtually every aspect of it.)

And so Friday ended, somewhere over the Atlantic ocean, bleeding rather quickly into Saturday...
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Saturday -- Fun with Skinheads, and England's Greatest Culinary Creation

Saturday dawned through the cabin windows; we finally roused ourselves fairly late in the flight, maybe an hour before landing. On arriving at the airport, Kate made a beeline for the luggage-problems desk while I collected the big suitcase. The policy is apparently that they can't start to reroute your bag until you have landed at your destination. So my little suitcase got to sit in Austin for six hours while we were in flight. Once she talked to them, it was immediately shipped north to Chicago, and thence to London. (More on that tomorrow.)

Our "home base" for the trip was the house of Kate's friend pir (who I gather knows several assorted other friends of mine) and his lady Miko. Their place is in Walthamstow, pretty much on the other side of London from Heathrow, so we got used to a long Tube ride. That said, it was nicely easy (important given that we were pretty sleep-dep'ped), save for one oddity: for about six stops, there was this random skinhead sitting across and a few seats down from us and glaring at me. It wasn't worth getting into it, and he got off at King's Cross, but it was puzzling. Adding to the puzzlement, when we got to our stop -- Blackhorse Road, between Tottenham Hale and Walthamstow -- there was an enormous police presence: several dozen cops, cars, a dozen motorcycles, all in bright yellow. Nothing happening, but we could tell that somebody was trying to send a message.

Anyway, we arrived at the house, Miko showed us to our room, and we crashed for a few hours. Once we woke up, I started to piece together what was going on: apparently the #EDL (one of the big British right-wing organizations) had declared that they were going to march on Walthamstow today. The lead-up had caused a kerfluffle the day before -- they had declared that they would rendezvous at King's Cross, and the staff there (largely Pakastani) had declared a strike in protest -- but there was nothing on the BBC or other television stations, due to an apparent news blackout.

(Which was somewhat understandable in context: this was the general area that kicked off the big British riots last year, and the authorities were presumably going to do whatever they needed in order to keep it from spreading again.)

So I spent a fair chunk of the afternoon listening to the police helicopter (which hovered more or less over our house for something like six hours), and piecing the story together via Twitter. The EDL march had been met by a counter-protest, #WeAreWathamForest, which was vastly larger -- far as I could tell, a few dozen EDL members were met by several hundred folks, who simply blocked the road and refused to let them pass. The Twitter stream faded as we got towards evening, with a bunch of triumphant tweets from the locals, along the lines of, "Got bottled up by the police, but it was *so* worth it".

Finished with a quiet evening (save for the helicopter) -- Miko made us a delightful Indian dinner, and I was introduced to possibly the most important foodstuff in Britain:Collapse )