Well. I successfully went without a proper internet connection for four days (using just the Blackberry's international data plan), but I've finally given in, to catch up with a little more quickness. If you've been following the Twitter feed, you've likely heard more about this trip than you care to, but here's yet more.
Christmas Eve: Got to Miami International three hours early, expecting the worst, and wasn't entirely disappointed. Continental had automatically rebooked my Miami-Newark-Heathrow routing and put me through Houston. Not something I particularly relished, as I'd secured the highly coveted reclining-exit-row window seat on both flights, and backtracking to Texas would mean an even longer flight to London. Nevertheless, it was probably for the best, as delays in and out of Newark exceeded three hours. My flights were all on time, and I managed an exit-row seat to Houston and a row all to myself to London. (By the way, one sleeping pill turns out to do very little for me. Two, however, knocks me rightthefuckout. Which is sort of what I was looking for.) I woke up just in time to snap the photo you see above, on our approach to London. And when I landed, it was . . .
Christmas Day: No proper public transport on this holiday here, so took the rail-replacement bus to Paddington Station, which turned out just fine, as it put me about three blocks from my hotel. Which didn't turn out all that fine. I will forgo a thousand details and just advise: Don't ever stay at an easyHotel. It's cheap (but not that cheap), but it's really just barely a step above a hostel, and without the friendliness. Took what was to be a brief nap, which turned into a five-hour midday slumber. I will say that in the three nights that followed, I didn't sleep nearly as well as I did that first afternoon. Got up, wandered around outside a bit, and settled on a nice restaurant in the neighborhood for Christmas dinner. Alas, right as I walked in, they were closing. Boo. The mini-mart next door provided my meal (chicken bacon sandwich, sweet chili crisps, mini baguette and Red Stripe tallboy) instead. Took it back to my room and watched a really touching documentary on Channel Four, "A Boy Called Alex," about an Eton student composer suffering from cystic fibrosis. (I was afraid it would end heartbreakingly, given his many health troubles, but instead he's now studying at Cambridge.) Also started to notice how much my ear was hurting, especially since the flight. Which brings us to . . .
Boxing Day: Woke up to terrible pain in my right ear and jaw, and a particularly windy, bone-chilling day outside. Had tickets to see Reading-Cardiff, but knew almost immediately I wouldn't be up for that, as rail services were taking an extra holiday off. (I'd have had to take the bus back to Heathrow, another bus to Reading, leave just after halftime in order to catch another bus back to Heathrow, then a further bus back to Paddington. Instead of, you know, the usual 20-minute train ride.) Woke up a bit and decided I needed to get the ear business taken care of sooner than later, so as to prevent the rest of my trip from being miserable. As luck (?) would have it, my hotel was a block from a hospital. I meekly asked the receptionist if there was someone I could talk to about my ear, and she sent me right to the emergency room, which seemed overly dramatic. But off I went, was seen very quickly by a nurse, who then made an appointment for me with a doctor on-site for an hour later. Long story short: yes, you have to pay for medical care in the UK if you don't live here (I'd always sort of wondered); to say they are efficient compared to U.S. doctors is an incredible understatement; and I have an ear infection, which I don't think I've had in 20 years. Good times. Then set off on a very long walk in search of an open pharmacy, took my fancy new British drugs and made my way to Oxford Street for the biggest shopping day of the year. In. Sane. Didn't buy much, but made a few good finds at Selfridges, among the masses, hundreds of which were lined up outside just to get a chance to buy an £800 Gucci handbag. Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, recession?
My Birthday: Ugh. The big two-nine. But, 'twas a very good one, once I got past the number. (The, this-is-the-last-glimpse-you'll-have-of-your-twenties number.) As Kenney pointed out in a previous comment, the great thing about traveling alone is that you can do whatever the hell you want, and not worry about anybody else. (Yes, I'm selfish like that.) So, I'd decided early on that I wanted to see Billy Elliot the Musical for the tenth or dozenth, or whatever, time, and also have lunch at Flash (above), a "pop-up restaurant installation" at the Royal Academy for the Arts that I'd read about in the NYT. Went to the Victoria Palace, bought a day ticket for both the matinee and evening show (front row, center), and then made my way toward the Royal Academy. Found it in plenty of time and warmed up in a Starbucks with the Guardian.
Went back right at noon, quite hungry and ready for awesomeness. Flash delivered. It's a shame you won't be able to experience it (its last night is Jan. 18), because it was truly a top-five-all-time dining experience for me. A pianist playing just-recognizable-enough versions of old pop songs (Beat It, included), an incredible wait staff and an even more incredible array of food. I started with the Dorset crab served on avocados, spinach and grapefruit slices and finished with an amazing duck confit with wild mushrooms and mustard sauce. Crazy-good. And so were the two cocktails I downed too quickly for it being noon. The "Ten Tom," which I'll be trying to re-create: Tanqueray 10, lemon, elderflower, mint and fizz. Delicious. I left stuffed and smiling. Perfect.
Then back to Victoria for the Billy matinee. It'd been over a year since I last saw it, with some major cast changes beyond just the Billys rotating in, so it was more fresh than I'd expected. For my show, Billy was the adorable Tom Holland, who, while perhaps not the most polished actor, gave a delightful performance unlike most of the others I'd seen. By the time I left, though, I was starting to get a headache, and stupidly made my way back to Oxford Street, to buy myself a few birthday gifts at HMV... where, of course, it only got worse. So I bagged the second Billy performance and made my way to Yo! Sushi and then back to the hotel. Good thing, as I slept like crap. But all in all, a very happy birthday indeed.
Today, Dec. 28: Had to check out of the easyHotel by 10, which was fine as I had to catch my train to Manchester (or so I thought) at 10:44. Made my way with luggage to Kings Cross, grabbed a bite and waited. And waited. Of the dozen or so trains that left after I arrived, only mine was delayed. So I went up to ask if I could use my ticket to Doncaster on another train and was told that, uh, not only could I not use it on the other train, I couldn't use it on any train. Hmm. Despite Virgin Trains' web site selling me said tickets for my trip to Manchester, two different Paddington ticketing agents said that it wouldn't be valid. They directed me to the St. Pancras international terminal across the street, where instead of taking the glamorous Eurostar to Paris, I settled into a crowded Great Midlands train to Sheffield.
What would normally have been a two-hour trip, somehow took three, and then the train from Sheffield to Manchester was... you guessed it! ... not operating today. Rail-replacement service again. A bus. To Manchester. Fun. Of course it was packed, and of course I sat directly across from two of the most annoying, self-important uni students I've ever had the displeasure of listening to TALK NONSTOP for an hour and a half about all their time spent in Spain, and in Thailand (of course), and in Prague, and how they were heading to Germany for New Year's, and then debating whether they should take jobs in South Korea or China or go for a Masters or whether the one would get a fancy job in systems with BAE, and how he didn't even really want it unless they let him travel to, you know, Dubai or New York, because, you know, he's in international business, and what good does that do if you can't TRAVEL INTERNATIONALLY? EFF. I wanted to slap his face right off his face.
So, got to Manchester finally, spent a half hour walking around searching for my elusive Travelodge, and finally I'm here. The room, even at half the price, is twice as luxurious as the easyHotel. Which isn't saying much, but which I definitely appreciate. I can walk around all three sides of the bed! Without stepping over luggage! And there's a counter! And a bathroom with a door that opens all the way! Huzzah!
And with this internet connection, I got my ticket all sorted for tomorrow's Manchester United-Middlesbrough match, where I'll be, rain or shine, cold or no, ear throbbing or not, tomorrow night (8 p.m. kickoff; yikes).