It's been almost nine full years since I first stepped foot on sacred Scottish soil. Nine years since the Colonel, Baldwin, and Megalodon joined me in hopping the pond for a few days of crisp (and dark) British winter because we found really cheap airfare on Clark Howard's webpage. It's also been almost a decade since I had one of my three "greatest days of my life," sandwiched between some of the worst or most disappointing.
This article is going to be told via memory and pictures only; I unfortunately didn't carry a notebook and pen with me wherever I went back then. I've got some quotes and bits from my travel companions too for the parts that I wasn't involved or only have vague memories of, but for the most part I am rather pleased with myself in how well my recollection holds out (traumatic events do tend to stick with you rather vividly). On the other hand, I am not very pleased in how cheezy my first attempt at a beard went. I was in my early 20s and I thought, "Hey! It's only two weeks before my trip to Europe, I should try to grow a lumberjack beard! It'll be awesome!" This experiment in hindsight is what made me come up with my 25+ Beard Law: A man SHOULD try to grow a beard at least once in his life (just to see what one looks like on him), but never before the age of 25... Please... For all those who have to look at your cheezy and thin facial follicles, NOT BEFORE 25! But I digress.
So, before I ramble on for too long, here is my Flashback - 1999: Expedition Scotland!
It started out in early October of '99. The Colonel's friend, Baldwin, had visited infamous penny-pincher Clark Howard's cheap-ass website looking for cheap hookers and blow when he ran across a Delta Airlines sale that had roundtrip tickets to the UK for only $200. The call went out for anybody who wanted to go, and as soon as he was alerted to it my good friend the Colonel immediately gave me a ring.
"Dude," he said, "Do you want to go to England for a week or two for only $200 in plane fare?"
"Holy sheeyat!" I replied. "Count me the fuck in! British hussies, here I come!"
I then ran over to the Colonel's office where Baldwin had already trekked to, and we each got ready to buy our tickets all at once to make sure we all got on the same flight. After the MegaPlayboy and Carl bailed on us, it ended up being just me, the Colonel, Baldwin, and Baldwin's fiancée Megalodon... Which sounded fine to me, until we started trying to figure out when we could all go.
The discount price was only for flights from mid-October to the end of the year. It would be cold, but hell, cold culture is still culture we thought. The dates that Baldwin, the Colonel, and I could all agree on were were November 30th for the take off, and December 8th for the return. I thought that was a little rushed, but for only $200 in travel costs it would still be worthwhile. Baldwin then called up Megalodon at that point in order to make sure that her calendar was free (she being still in school). He got her on the phone and as he started explaining things to her he skooched the Colonel out of his chair and he started clickitty-clacking away at his computer.
"Uh huh...... Right... No, they said the 30th......... Yes, I know... Uh huh.... Welllllll, maybe not... I... Uh huh.... Okay. Got it. Got it. Perfect. Love you, sweetie," and then he hung up and looked at us. "Okay, Megalodon has exams that start on Monday the 6th, so we'll have to leave on the 30th, and then return home on the 5th so that she can study for her first exam. That okay with you guys?"
I must have looked really confused and PISSED at that, because Baldwin turned to the Colonel in order to avoid my angry-stare. The Colonel was confused too, but all he could manage was, "Wait, what?!"
I jumped in at that point and said, "Waitaminute... If your wife--" "Fiancée." "Cousin, sister, hooker, whore... Whatever. If she has exams at that time, let's just postpone it until AFTER she's done with classes? I'm really okay with mid-December. No biggie there."
The Colonel agreed, but Baldwin coughed and said, "Yeeeeah... That... Well, maybe we could have, but I just ordered our tickets for those dates... No refunds or exchanges on those sale prices either. But, you know, maybe next time?"
I impressed myself for keeping my cool at that time, but I still asked, "Are you fucking mental? You just now, while on the phone with her, ordered your tickets online?.... WE, the Colonel and I, are IN THE SAME GODDAMN ROOM with you! Why couldn't you ASK us first to see if it was okay with US to only spend, what, 3 full days in England? Jesus! Only three full days! Sandwiched between two and a half days of traveling for 10 to 12 hours each way! Not to mention time zones! I fucking HATE you..."
I almost backed out, but this was my only chance to go for so cheap a flight. These were the only people I knew who could afford a vacation at that point or who even wanted to go to Jolly Ole England in the middle of winter... So I sucked it up and booked my ticket too. Then almost 2 months later the departure date arrived.
Day 1: Tuesday - November 30th, 1999
We all traveled to Atlanta Hartsfield Airport separately due to each of us coming from different Thanksgiving functions or work or school. I had started growing my cheeze-beard (a mere and meager two weeks of cheese on my chin at that point) and surprised the Colonel who hadn't seen me for three weeks (I had snuck up behind him at the terminal, pulled my ski hat down low, and whispered in a raspy voice, "You gonna get raped.." He then elbowed me in the Adam's apple and started shrieking for security. After we sorted everything out with the airport rent-a-cops he saw the humor in it... Mostly the humor in my cheeze, but humor nonetheless).
Baldwin and Megalodon showed up just before take off and I'm glad to say that everybody was in a good mood. "I'll make the most of it," I thought. "And I can always go back and see more at a later date if need be. Hell, I'm going to fucking England right now! Maybe France or Scotland before this thing is over too! Let's rock!"
It was an evening flight, and I was hoping to sleep for most of the way (close to 9 hours through the night, and through 10 time zones). The plane was about half full and we were all able to spread out. Baldwin and Megalodon snuggled up in an aisle all their own, but the Colonel refused to join me. All in all, the smooth flight seemed to be a good indication of the perfect time we were destined to have. "What the hell could go wrong?" I dangerously asked myself. "This will be the best 3 and a half days ever!"
Day 2: Wednesday - December 1st, 1999
Stoke Me a Clipper
We landed at Gatwick Airport a little before noon on Wednesday, and the first thing I noticed (while looking out my window on our final approach) was how scrunched everything was. The whole country seemed to be packed together like ten fingers jammed up one woman's vag — all hot, bothered, crowded, uncomfortable, and not knowing just what in the high, holy hell they were all doing in the same messy space at the same time. Even the airport seemed like it was forced into an area of land that was too small to hold it all.
We took the Gatwick Express train to Victoria Station in London proper (for an ass ton of pounds, for a 30 minute ride), and then (after lots of arguing and name calling with some local blokes who apparently liked to fuck with tired tourists) found the line we needed to make it to Russell Square, which was just a few blocks away from our hotel. With all of our luggage being toted behind us (well, the Colonel and I just had backpacks, but Baldwin and Megalodon brought their dressers and a microwave apparently), we eventually made it to the front steps of the Lonsdale Hotel... A self-described 3-star bed and breakfast (that we originally found thanks to my sister-in-law who'd stayed there a few years before) in the heart of the city. Where-as a 3-star hotel room in the States would entail a suite with as much floor space as my ranch house, a 3-star in crowded and crammed London meant a 15' by 20' room with three beds somehow forced into it, and a bathroom (loo, water closet, shitter) added in at a later date (made obvious by the fact that it was a small, plastic, walled-in porta-potty forced into the far corner). I was a little disappointed, but screw it! Like we planned to spend all that much time in the place anyway.
The Indian guy at the front counter gave us some maps of the city and told us that our breakfasts would be served between 6:30 and 8AM. Then we went out to see the town!... Actually, no, that's when Megalodon and Baldwin wanted to take a nap and then just relax for the rest of the day... We had just traveled halfway around the world (where we already slept most of the time on the plane), we only had 3 and a half real days to do anything in a foreign town, and it was only around 2PM on our first (half) day... and they wanted to go nappy-time. The Colonel was tempted to crash with them, but I really fought against it.
"Are you guys absolutely in-fucking-sane?!" I cautiously questioned. "Do you realize how much time and money it took to get here? We're only here for less than a week, and there's way too much to see even if we spent two or more weeks here... No. No, we're going out and seeing some British shit! Sleep on the plane ride home or when you die."
Grudgingly everybody conceded (it was like I was forcing them to go to the dentist or their own ass-raping... This always bugs the shit out of me: Why bother going to a new place if you don't want to do anything once you get there?!). Thankfully the guy behind the hotel desk had heard our conversation and told us that the "world famousous British Museum" was just around the corner. I brightened right up and matter of factly told everybody that that's what we were going to do. Somebody groaned, but fuck them.
The museum was close, and really kind of cool. I just knew at the time that it would be the setting for an action set-piece in the sequel to that Mummy movie with Brendan Fraser that had just come out that past summer. I can just foresee things like that. It's a gift. We toured around the exhibits, taking pictures of everything like Japanese tourists in a child brothel, and all the while Megalodon just kept bitching about how hungry she was, and how tired she was, and how her feet hurt, and how her head hurt, and how she was cold, and she might have rabies (or babies, or scabies... I didn't ask her to clarify that last one). I was starting to get a headache too, but only from her constant complaining (Megalodon, if you're reading this, you have to remember just how much you kvetched that day, and how grumpy you acted. You know I'm not just making that up after the fact). After taking my last picture of a wall of the history of currency (for some reason I thought that it was absolutely hilarious that the last thing on the wall was a credit card... I was laughing out loud [probably from exhaustion and the smog] so much that people were actually hushing me), I allowed my companions to drag me out of the building.
It's Not Just a Joke. British Food is Shitty.
It was dark out.... It was only a few minutes after 4PM, and it was pitch black — the sun had gone down a long time before. Holy fuck! We were a lot further North than I would have guessed for the sun to set before 4 at this time of year. This fact surprised me and pissed me off. Yes, it was interesting to see and experience a "dark afternoon," but it also reinforced Megalodon's and Baldwin's desire to call it a day and go to sleep. I took charge again and told them all "No, we are not retiring before primetime — that would just be sad. First, we'll find a real, authentic, Londinium pub and have a few pints along with some fish and chips, then we'll think of what to do next... which won't involve us going to sleep. Now! Let's fucking find a goddamn pub!" Holy shit I acted like Hitler on that trip, but dammit, we had to live it up while we were there! Even if they thought I was a wanker at the time, I convinced myself in my own mind that they'd only remember all the fun I made them partake in when all was said and done... What is that saying about "the best laid plans of mice and men"?
Everybody was hungry by then, so we started simply looking around for a neighborhood pub to park ourselves at for a meal and some drinky (LOTS of drinky). I figured hell, this was London! There was nothing else for the locals to do here but drink themselves into a stupor after work, just like Andy Capp. Then go home piss drunk and beat the Mrs... Just like Andy Capp. There had to be pubs on pretty much every goddamn corner, like in my college town back home!.. Unfortunately after checking out the 2 corners across the street from the Museum and not finding a drinking establishment Megalodon had enough of the walking and demanded (DEMANDED) that we stop where we were, and eat at (looks around, POINTS at a tiny, shitty-looking sandwich shop five stores down from where we were) THAT place. Before the Colonel or I could even see what she was pointing at, or open our mouths to protest it when we inevitably did, Baldwin and Megalodon were halfway to the front door.
That was the CRAPPIEST meal I ever spent any of my own hard-earned money on. First of all, the tiny shop was empty except for us and Babu, the Pakistani guy who unenthusiastically asked us what we wanted by shouting at us from behind the counter, 20 feet away. I don't remember what everyone else got, but I ordered a pastrami sandwich and a water. 30 minutes later what I got was two slices of really thin white bread with some kind of jam rubbed on both slices, lots of diced onions, some foul cheese, and Babu may have waved some meat above it before serving it to me, because there was nary a bit of pastrami to find on the finished product. Oh, and the "water" was a 12 ounce bottle of carbonated water. The whole thing cost me £9, or about $16. And the crust was cut off of the bread too. What was I, 3 years-old? I think because I was still so goddamn hungry after that I very unwisely ordered dessert, but for the love of Moses I couldn't tell you what the dish was or what the fuck I was thinking. And Baldwin and Megalodon took some spoonfuls of it without asking too. Lovely. Only afterwards did I wonder if we paid the real price, or the tourist price for that fucktastic meal.
Nobody was happy after that hideous experience, but Megalodon started acting all peppy and polite after we walked out the front door (to Babu's angry, retreating glares). I think she was trying to make up for her obvious snafu in picking the dining establishment that evening (well, it was pure night by the time we left), but I was still pretty ticked off despite her trying to talk with an cockney accent to some bobbies on patrol and other obvious tourists. Had she acted that way earlier and pretended to be a street urchin to that couple from Minnesota before the dinner faux pas, she definitely would have gotten a laugh out of me.
I suggested that what we really needed after that was a drink. My mouth was so watering for a Guinness at that point (mostly in order to wash the terrible taste of whatever that jam on my sandwich was out of my mind). But, at this point I was outnumbered 3 to 1 in wanting to go back and rest a little at the hotel. I protested mightily, but ultimately lost. I was promised that we'd only lay down for a little while, and that we'd check out the nightlife when we woke up, no later than 9PM... I knew it was a filthy lie, but I think I was simply too much of a wuss to tour any part of a strange city at night by myself (a few days later and this would ultimately change forever, but at the time I just didn't want to start any major rifts within the group), and so I went back to the Lonsdale too.
We sat up and talked for a little while, and I made everybody promise me that we would actually DO something the next day... Something big, something FUN. They agreed, and then we all "rested our heads" for a little while. When my alarm watch went off at 9PM I was the only one to hear it, and as I looked around the cramped room in the light of the street lamp outside the window, I could see my posse all snug and warm and curled up on their beds... and I KNEW that if I tried to wake them at this point I'd be the bad guy, so I let them all sleep. I hate being the bad guy. Unless people reeeeeeally fucking deserve it. So far my group didn't reeeeeeeeeally deserve it. Yet.