London – May 2007

unionjack.jpgSince hostel accommodations aren’t really with any frills, I had a rough night of sleeping and was afraid that my alarm might wake up the other nine people in the room I was sleeping in.  Although, the bed at the hostel was actually more decent than the lumpy springs in the bed at the Ruskin.  But with everything packed, I hadn’t showered the night before and the smoke and everything was still on me.  So I got up for good at 6:15am and felt compelled at least to dig around in my suitcase to find some basics to shower with.  I also needed to change clothes because I knew that I would be a mess from the trip home anyways.

A half hour later, I checked out of the hostel and went to the Holborn tube station for the last time.  It was rather saddening that that may have been the last time I’ll get to visit the City for a while.  But hopefully the next time I go, I’ll even be able to bring Judi.  By the time I lugged my suitcases around the underground and got to the Gatwick Express around 7:30 and took the 7:45 train, getting into the airport at 8:16.

Gatwick Airport is perhaps one of the worst airports I’ve ever been to and I didn’t realise it so much upon arrival as I did when I departed.  I’m not sure if it is British transport regulations themselves that were the problem, but I’ve never been through that much security in any American (or Montreal) airport.  Yet it wasn’t entirely the fact that the British nanny-state slowed down my entry to the departure gates… Once I was through to the concourse, it was a disastrous maze of shops, restaurants, and kiosks – almost like a mall.  There was just about one display panel of flight departure information in the lounge area, and beyond that point were the gates.

At the gates, there was no information and almost no way to figure out which flight was departing from where, and what airlines had claim to which gate.  So when I found out that my flight was delayed an hour from 10:30 to 11:30, I couldn’t even get further information on what might happen if i missed my connecting flight in Charlotte (which was also bumped forward by nearly a half hour).

With an extra hour of time to kill, I went to W.H. Smith’s to pick up a Financial Times and then went upstairs to get a sausage, egg, and cheese bagel from McDonald’s.  After finishing the sandwich (which seemed to be much a healthier version of the same sandwich offered in the States), I went to the lounge to read my FT until the boarding gate was announced.

Luckily since my security experience and delay in departure went so well, I hoped that maybe I would be able to seek some decent comfort with a sociable travel companion in the seat next to me on the plan.  That was wishful thinking.  Instead, I got stuck with a person who seemed relatively normal until he started having conversations with himself, replete with emphatic hand gestures.  Every time some baby started acting up, he’d throw his book down and start talking to himself again.  He also managed to order a screwdriver.

Suffice to say, after nearly 8 1/2 hours of flying, the only conversation was asking me for the time at about the 7 hour mark.  Additionally, he ordered a headset for the movies, but we also lucked out in having our screens broken.  So when he couldn’t watch anything and the attendants couldn’t fix the problem, they refunded his headset and instead of cash, they gave him not one, but two screwdrivers.  To say the least, it was anything but enriching.

In order to make the most of an otherwise dull situation and to stay awake as to not succumb to the ills of jet lag, I decided to read my Tescopoly book, finishing over 100 pages in between trying to find other ways to kill time.  After all, as our chances of approaching Charlotte on time were bleak, my anxiety was raising about missing my connecting flight.

We got into Charlotte around 3:07pm EDT and passport control was a snap, but then again, I didn’t have anything to declare and it should be evidenced by their checks that I’ve had my passport run enough times by customs (Canadian in particular) that I’m good to go.  I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to recheck my baggage and my time was running thin, but I knew that it needed to be claimed to go through customs.  So at 3:40, I pulled my baggage and virtually ran through customs with no questions asked.

Sure enough, there was a baggage recheck so even though my flight was at 3:45, I figured I would at least have someone to ask about how to get a new flight.  I lucked out though; it turned out that Air Traffic Control had grounded the plane until 4:30, so I rechecked my suitcase, thanked G-d and ran through the concourse to get through security as soon as possible.

Of course I had no way of knowing it, but my late arrival had signaled a change in my flight plans and my seat on the appropriate flight was given up to another passenger.  I was able to get them to find me a seat on the flight anyways, with just enough time to spare.  Well, that was until the plane was delayed on the runway for a half hour.

The flight from Charlotte was longer than usual.  It was about an hour and a half before the captain announced that we had been flying at a slower speed and that the ATC in Newark was putting us into a holding pattern.  For another 20 min, we spent leaving a big ol’ carbon footprint in the sky doing circles around Jersey before settling down around 6:50pm.  Sure enough, we also had to wait to taxi back to the gate.

By the time I was able to claim my baggage and take the AirTrain to the NJTransit track, I made the 7:55 train with five minutes to spare.  A slight delay between Secaucus and Penn Station put me into Manhattan later than I would have liked and then I lugged my baggage all the way over to Grand Central, making it onto the 9:07 Metro-North train to Fairfield with about six minutes to spare.  Though a large portion of my day was miserable and I was a sweaty rag, I also had my moments of levity.  I arrived in Fairfield around 10:25 and Judi had been waiting for several hours (though I still don’t understand why) and it was time to head home.  The long trip was over.

unionjack.jpgFor everybody else, it was their last day in London.  However being that I made the trip on frequent flyer miles, my flight had a few caveats, enabling me to stay an extra day.  I woke up, had some breakfast in the dining room, and talked with Sedami a little about languages and learning French and the sorts.  Our exams were due in, so I finished some last minute squeezing some effects in my suitcase, went to exchange about £5 of change for a banknote, and headed back to hand in the the exam.  Here are my answers.

Everyone else had started to check out and I figured that since checkout was at 11:30, I might as well move my stuff next store to the Astor Museum Hostel, where I would be lodging for the night at £15.  Check-in there wasn’t until 2, so I went back to the Ruskin and Charles and I went to Covent Garden so that he could pick up a few last minute gifts.  On our way back, we stopped at an iCafe so I could print out my e-ticketing boarding passes and then went out to the Museum Tavern for one last drink together.

I figured it was worth a try to see what Pimm’s and lemonade tasted like.  Luckily, they don’t sell it in the States because it’s not that good.  Tim and his girlfriend had also decided to grab lunch there, but Charles headed out and I had no cash on me, so I decided to head to the Tate Modern and check out the British version of MOMA.

Personally, I found the exterior to look like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.  But the inside of it only had three floors worth of exhibitions, one of which was out of commission since they were readying a new installation next weekend.  So I decided that, since it was free anyway, I would walk around and see what the remaining two floors had to offer.  There was a lot of neat works there, but I did find that since no one was accompanying me and I had no one to converse with on the different artworks, it was not really much fun.

Thus, I decided that I would head all the way across town to see the Beatles’ infamous Abbey Road.  My Oyster card ran out and I didn’t top it off correctly, so I ended up needing to go to the Baker Street stop at the edge of Zone 1 and walking past the Lord’s Cricket Grounds and up Grove End Road.  Surprisingly, Abbey Road is still not much of a tourist attraction, although a couple of girls were trying to snap a shot as on the album’s cover.  The neighbourhood is still residential (and wealthy at that – these houses looked like colonial Britain as in the islands or in Africa), so traffic was still moving and uninterested in the tourists.

I took it as an opportunity to explore a new place in London; one where not many of the tourists were going.  However, I also knew that I couldn’t really stick around for too long, since I wanted to be back near the Bloomsbury area for the UEFA Champions League final, where Liverpool was playing AC Milan.

I left for Covent Garden around 5, making sure that I could take Zone 2 fare, and then started to walk around, looking for a suitable pub to catch some dinner and the match.  I settled on The Freemason’s Arms on Long Acre.  For dinner, I kept up with the Steak and Ale pie and started to talk to some of the people already sitting there and staking out their seats for the match.  These guys Danny, Ben, and Albert were Liverpool fans like most people that showed (well except for Ben, he was a West Ham supporter – but everyone was rooting for the English team, so it didn’t matter).

We all had some drinks and even though Liverpool lost 2-1, it was still an experience for me to be in that pub, rather than by myself in the hostel, at a movie, or at a rock concert.  The only thing I have to say is that since the smoke-free ban doesn’t affect England until July, I found that the smoke was really bothering my lungs.  New York made a smart decision in passing that legislation a couple of years ago.

The match ended with the final ceremonies around 10 and rather than continuing along with the consolation activities, I decided to head back to the hostel, check-in, draw up my bags, and hit the sack for an early evening and early morning.

unionjack.jpgThe morning was a little rough and I needed to get some sleep but it was still trekking on to class.  I was wearing my Arsenal jersey and one guy commented on it (“Oh to, oh to be, oh to be a gooner…” and a taxi driver gave me the thumbs up.  Given how the night went, I was surprised that everyone showed up for class on time, but I made it to Pret a Manger, picked up a coffee and bacon and egg croissant and went to class.  I think Professor Flowers got the impression that we had all gone a little over the top with the previous evening (and also, he wanted to give us a little more time to work on our exam), so he dismissed us around 10.

Charles and I went back to the room to watch a new 30 Rock that he downloaded and I think we both took extended naps to recharge our batteries for the rest of the day.  Since I had pretty much stripped down to take my nap, I changed into clothes for the visitation to Morgan Stanley.  Charles and I went down to the lounge and met up with Amish, who decided to join us for lunch.  We ended up getting some Thai at Ah King and then met at the lounge around 2 to head over to Canary Wharf.

I have to say, I really like Canary Wharf.  It’s a lot of the businesses that are around midtown Manhattan and Wall Street, but the area itself is extraordinarily well-maintained and nicely designed.  We got to Morgan Stanley, signed into the reception and headed up to meet with Gina Licari, a St. John’s alumna who works in Commercial Mortgage Backed Securities.  It was interesting to hear her take on the industry and also about her background and how she happened on her career path.

On the way back, I went to do some shopping at Covent Garden, getting a teapot for Judi’s parents and a birthday gift for my mom.  Charles, Mike, and I went to Spaghetti House for some dinner and then headed back to the hotel to wrap up our final exams.  I finished mine around 10pm and then re-watched 30 Rock with Charles.  Since last night was a going out night, we pretty much played it safe, packed our luggage, and called in an early evening.

unionjack.jpgI woke up on the earlier side of the morning, so I decided to make use of the breakfast and went down to the dining room to have myself a bowl of cornflakes. The morning’s lecture was on Commercial Mortgage Backed Securities, which was interesting because basically, the entire MBS field implies that wherever there is land, there is someone who will own it. Since mortgages are regarded by banks as assets since debt assures repayment (and interest), it is possible to take the mortgages, use them as collateral, and sell securities based off the asset.

We also discussed in brief our upcoming visitation to Morgan Stanley. And finally, Professor Flowers gave all of us the final, take-home (well, more like take-back-to-the-room) exam that’s to be due by 9am on Wednesday. With all that in mind, it was time to pick up something to eat and then head over to the Camera Cafe so I could get some web access, work on posting some web site entries, and then working on the final exam questions. Before that though, I stopped by All Star Lanes and made a reservation for the 9 of us for 9:20 in the evening.

After completing a sizeable chunk of the exam, I headed back to the hotel and hung out in the room and in the lounge before grabbing Charles and then heading out for some vegetarian Indian food with him, Amish, and Mahesh. The place we went to was on Marchmont Street, off Tavistock Place and I ordered some onion bhaji and saag aloo. Normally I’m partial to some chicken tikka masala (which is apparently available at London McDonalds), but I found the saag aloo extraordinarily filling. By around 9ish, we headed back to the hotel to see if there was anyone left to walk over to the lanes with.

Charles, Amish, and I got to the lanes, ordered some drinks, and waited to see whom else was going to show. Around 9:15, Tim and his girlfriend came, and then Seema and Marisa came and by then we were all bowling. A half hour later, it was like the rest of the crew magically showed up and for the first time, everyone in the seminar was out in the evening together. With drinks all around, it made for a great first half of the night, but after bowling a 57 and 110 (that was the liquor), I joined everybody else and headed to Night & Day for one last romp.

The long and short of Night & Day had us imbibing on quite a bit of alcohol, but really getting to bond as a group. It was a shame the nine of us hadn’t done anything like that earlier in the week, but was a great relaxing night nonetheless.

unionjack.jpgThis morning, I woke up around 8am, showered and went over to the Pancake Cafe for breakfast. As seems typical with London, at 8:30, the place still wasn’t open. So I was obliged to go to Starbucks and grab a coffee and a muffin so we could get a roll on. Charles and I walked down to Trafalgar Square to get to Buckingham Palace to watch the changing of the guard. I was actually surprised that there were actually planes allowed to fly over the palace.

For about two hours, I sat right in front of the gate, destined to not let any of the madding crowd take my space. Around 11:15, the old guard started to come out from the rear and the new guard started to enter the grounds. The whole ceremony was extremely reminiscent of the guard ceremonies at the Québec City Citadel and the Halifax Citadel and perhaps even less interesting. The band played four songs, two of which were themes from soundtracks to Gladiator and The Incredibles. Resultingly, it was neat but anti-climatic nonetheless.

From there, Charles and I split up and I went looking for a store on Carnaby Street to find a rugby jersey for the London Wasps, one of the two teams in the Heineken Cup, and also sponsored by Magners Cider. Regretfully the shirt was £50, so I ended up having to pass on it. I continued along my path home, while looking for a bookstore at the same time. I finally happened upon a Borders on Oxford Street so I was able to pick up the book Tescopoly, perhaps a useful source for my thesis.

I moved along toward the hotel and went to lunch at Soba Noodle Bar at 38 Poland off of Oxford Street. At Soba, I ended up meeting a kid from Boston who was a Masters student in philosophy at Oxford University. We chatted briefly, but he was actually back from his summer vacation to meet a girl so he left before I finished.

When I got back to the hotel, Charles had already left so I ended up just hanging out in the room. However, I ended up closing my eyes for 15 minutes and ended up waking up after 45. I started to head down the street to go to a cafe, but I forgot my plug adapter. By the time I got back, Charles had already been back to the room, so we both did some work for tomorrow’s presentations. After that, it was nearly 8 and Mike had been spotted, so we headed down to Spaghetti House for some dinner.

The rest of the evening consisted of picking up something to drink and then coming back to the room to re-watch 30 Rock with Mike. Even though Charles had finished a bottle of wine, apparently for a second night in a row, it wasn’t enough to induce him to appear at Night & Day. I didn’t want to be the lone man to show, and though Tim and his girlfriend came back to London, they never returned for all of us to go out, so I also went to bed.

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