Saturday, October 29, 2011

On Leaving London

Call of Europe

During my retreat at Holy Cross Abbey, I had picked up a wonderful index of all of the monasteries and Catholic guesthouses throughout Europe, listed alphabetically. Since then I toyed with the idea of continuing my meditation on this old continent of wine, culture, and rich history. Of course, the deciding factor was resources and I was running out. Like a good market researcher, I hunted the airlines and websites until I found a roundtrip ticket to London for $550 (including tax)...

Now I have distant family in London, friends in Paris, and vague acquaintances in Switzerland and Germany. This was the time to turn on the charm and invite oneself into the warm households of those folks whose company would surely be delightful if I actually knew them. Undaunted, I propositioned them and got an invitation for respective visits in Surrey, Chantilly, Zurich, and Hamburg. Travel is the ultimate motivation and I have since learned that I appear far more likeable than I really am.

So I took the overnight flight from New York to London, and I emerged groggy and slightly bewildered as I set foot on British soil at 6pm. My aunt Thai, actually my mother's cousin, was situated in the suburb of Surrey outside of London so I took a bus and then the train to her home. Then I dragged the inordinately heavy duffel bag down the interminable four blocks from the train station to her flat. Yes, that's the fatigue talking. Surrey was a quaint town, with pubs, a barber shop, photography studio, and a store which sold refrigerators and ovens. Aunt Thai's place was two stories up, situated between a wine shop and a mom & pop grocery, the only entrance was up ladder-like stairs in the back.

I arrived at 10am. The door was answered by a congenial gentleman named Nigel, who informed me that Aunt Thai had to go to work. However, she had left guidebooks, maps and handwritten notes welcoming me in a graceful, girlish scrawl. Nigel showed me the spare bedroom and a neatly made bed, upon which I promptly collapsed.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Postscript: On Leaving India

Some countries you regret leaving; some nations you can't wait to leave, and others make it so complicated that you consider yourself extraordinarily fortunate to be able to depart. Such was India. It was not a function of airline procedure or security protocol or airport architecture. It was simply the way things were.

Take check-in for example. Our tour group arrived early and waited in line behind twelve people, eight foreigners and four indigenous Indian men. Piece of cake, right? Wrong. When the Indian folks reached the desk, they promptly plunked down approximately 15-20 passports each. In flurry, a crowd of families, sari-garbed women and children rushed to the front of the line. The reality was that each man represented a clan, all in all totaling to nearly 100 people who wedged their way to the front, irrespective of those they pushed on the way. When I asked the desk employee about this, she looked at me like I was crazy. Apparently, this was standard operating procedure.

Then there were security checks, which happened immediately after check-in and also right before the gate. When we tried to put our carry-on baggage through the second security check, half the passengers were sent back outside the first security checkpoint. Evidently, a sticker was supposed to be tacked on the luggage during that process and it was haphazardly neglected by half the staff. No matter what, you had to return to get the sticker or they adamantly would not allow boarding.

True, India was gorgeous and interesting and heartbreaking and squalid. But after being cut by 100 people and running back and forth across the airport like a flustered lunatic, next time it would be India the DVD.