under a slate grey sky

I half expected to hear the bells of Big Ben blaring over loudspeakers upon arrival in the UK, but the only thing greeting me off the jetway at Terminal 3 was passport control. Oh, passport control, that joy of joys! Be still, my heart.


a rubber-stamp welcome.

I staggered into Terminal 5 to meet up with my colleagues, completely exhausted from more than 20 hours of nonstop traveling. Their flight didn’t get in for another hour and a half, but even a small nap seemed unattainable for the time being. Suitcases littered the row of seats the students had chosen, some of the students bringing entire designer wardrobes encased in £700 luggage sets. Priorities, I suppose. I’m here to cash some checks in the Life Bank, but if all that’s on your mind is the par-tay, suit yourself. I’ll be the cheery bloke in the corner falling asleep still strapped into his backpack.

Skip ahead an hour or two, and our school-chartered coach pulled out (the wrong way, for les americains) onto the M4 headed for central London. I was of course riveted by the view out the window, but my enthusiasm was no doubt hampered by my acute lack of sleep. The drizzle I had heard was such a characteristic of London smeared the windows of the coach as we sped toward the city.

Lack of sleep was addressed fairly soon as we arrived at the University of London, my new daily grind. The foreign student centre soon looked like an impromptu backpacker’s hostel, with bodies strewn over the much-in-demand couches and backpacks and more bodies littering the floor. I staked out a spot in the corner near the radiator and passed out as the world outside turned dark again.

Our hosts got home around 5pm, and my roommate and I headed out into the neon-studded night. Our taxi wound its way through the serpentine streets, our foul-mouthed Cockney driver shouting stories of dodging evil traffic wardens, until we arrived in our new home for the next four months.

The next few days were a blur, punctuated by lack of sleep, endless orientation seminars, and generally being smacked around by jet lag. Names, places like Bloomsbury, Finsbury Park, Kensington. Being told over and over and over not to get in unlicensed minicabs. The traffic’s on the left and sometimes if you don’t mind the gap, you really will fall flat on your face. You’ve been warned.

Eventually the insomnia subsided somewhat and routine settled in. Get up, fight the crowds on the Tube, go to class, head back home and sleep. Sprinkle in the pub and more pedestrian things like getting phones sorted and grocery shopping, the first few days were booked wall to wall. Soon London would even out, and we’d get around to enjoying ourselves, but at the beginning, London was a pressure cooker. Take heart, the sun would shine soon (literally! incredible, i know), and things would become much less hectic. This is only the beginning.

Advertisements

transatlanticism

Transatlantic.

The word conjures up images of great steamships like the Queen Mary, men like Lindbergh, Alcock and Brown, and of famous aircraft like the Concorde, taking off from JFK in New York and landing gracefully at Heathrow two and a half hours later. While they may not possess the pomp and circumstance of the olden days, transatlantic flights are a special thing. No baggage fees, a hot meal (try getting that on US domestic service), and a glass of wine (or two) with dinner. And of course, we mustn’t forget what lay in wait for me on the other side of the ocean: London.

I started my journey in Chicago, Illinois, at the cathedral of transport that is O’Hare International Airport. I took an early morning Blue Line and dozed while the train made its way to O’Hare. My first leg was from Chicago to Montréal’s Dorval Airport, where I would spend a few hours sitting around and then, finally, board a plane that would carry me over the pond to England. I sat nervously watching the planes scurry around the ramp, baggage men flinging their charges into innumerable cargo bays. Finally, my flight was announced, and I joined the line at the gate, passport in hand. This was the dividing line: after I left the soil of Illinois, I wouldn’t see the US again until April. Adventure awaited just across the threshold to the jetway.

The clouds below formed an impenetrable wall of fuzz once we ascended above the Windy City, prohibiting me from seeing the country we flew over. I snoozed on and off, finally looking out the window through a break in the clouds 45 minutes later at the neatly squared off rural parts of Ontario. We came into Montréal, cold and nearly cloudless, and a man who (surprisingly) knew my name marshaled me through customs. Transit visa time. Another *thwack* of the rubber stamp, and I was legal for the time being.

My visa didn’t allow me to leave a certain part of the terminal (unfortunately the part lacking poutine), so I bummed around and tried to nap until finally they called my flight. Air Canada 864, with nonstop service to London Heathrow airport, was now boarding at gate 56.

Time to take that step, then. I walked once again onto hallowed ground, onto the jetway, the only thing separating me from adventure.

As we turned onto the runway, I looked out at the airport grounds and realized that this really was it – I was past the point of no return. Winter was already here in Montreal, and the snow flew down in the beams of the huge lights illuminating the tarmac as we taxied to the end of the runway. The pilot then pushed the throttles to the stops and I felt the acceleration of the half-empty Airbus push me back into my seat. We lifted off, and I managed to catch a final glimpse of Montréal before we punched into the cloud layer blanketing the continent. I was on my way.

As the plane turned out over the Atlantic, I eased into what was (so far) the longest flight of my life. Six and a half hours in a graciously empty plane. A woman sitting behind me offered advice; this was getting to be routine for her, based by family in Toronto but by trade in London. I was restless. A flight attendant picked up on this, and with a well practiced sleight-of-hand, slipped two little bottles of wine into my hoodie with a wink. Back in row 42, I stretched out into the empty seat next to me, finished my present, and headed off to an uneasy sleep.

I was roused by the same kindly flight attendant offering me coffee, which I gladly accepted. The sun began to rise, first lighting the sky enough that I could see the outline of the wing, then coming up above the horizon, above the cloud deck that had followed me to Britain. We descended through the clouds, the plane making all manner of noises as the flaps and landing gear did their thing, myself still unable to see beyond the window in the pea soup of the clouds. Finally, around 1000 feet, the ground came into view.

The cars on the streets below were going the wrong way. I had arrived.