My Vacation Report (Such as it was)

As usual, I am typing up a trip report for those parties who may be interested in what I did for vacation this year. I use the term vacation lightly as this was anything but a vacation. As far as I’m concerned, I took no vacation in 2007.

This year, I decided to ditch Christmas and head to Europe. It was, in theory, a good plan when it was hatched. The weakened US Dollar (thanks to that jerk George Bush), made this a very, very expensive trip but with no practical way to cancel. Had I known how bad the exchange rate would get, it would have been cheaper to eat the plane tickets than go. Oh well. Honestly, if I would have had a great time I wouldn’t have minded. The trip was planned when the exchange rate was US$1.85 per £1 but ended up around $2.05 and increase of 10% — which may not sound like much until you add everything up.

Anyway, I invited many of my friends some of whom expressed serious interest. As the trip came closer, all my friends who said they were interested slowly backed out for various (and generally sound) reasons. However, surprisingly, my sister said she wanted to go. I thought it might be a good experience for us to go somewhere together again. Next time I have that thought, I wish someone would get a large 2×4 with a rusty nail in the end and smack me with it repeatedly until I’m either dead or come to my senses. No jury in the world will convict you.

I arrive at the airport via the Mom-Taxi at about 11am on Christmas day as scheduled. Check-in goes very smoothly and we’re at the gate a good hour before boarding. The plane boards almost on time — only about 15 minutes late — and my sister is still, at this point, seemingly excited. The plane pulls back and nearly an hour later, we are still on the ground for no reason. The flight to Newark takes almost four hours instead of just under three, again, for no apparent reason. I’m not concerned about our connection, though, because we have a long layover. And, indeed, despite the delay, we get to our gate in Newark well ahead of boarding. Since Samantha’s hungry, we stop at the food court to eat. This means we have no time to go to the lounge for some pre-flight relaxation, though. No big deal on that. (We were travelling business class courtesy of milage upgrades, of course).

We board our flight to Paris on-time, and we depart about a half hour late, as do most international flights. It’s no big deal and because of tailwinds we manage to get to Paris a good 30 minutes early anyway. Samantha sleeps most of the flight. I read and watch in-flight movies. The seats in Continental’s business-first cabin are not nearly as comfortable as Delta’s — I think there’s a difference in the angle of recline.

We clear immigration and customs quickly and our bags take no time at all. We are soon in a taxi headed towards town from Charles De Gaulle Airport. We get to our hotel (Hotel Warwick Champs-Élysées) before 900am. In a surprise revelation, our hotel room is ready. We dump our stuff in our rooms and head out less than thirty minutes later.

The sun has yet to make an appearance and the weather is even colder than we expected, though considerably wetter. The weather can best be described as wet. We spend the rest of the day walking around Paris. Up the Champs-Élysées and under the arc Du Triomphe. Then all the way back down the Champs-Élysées to the Place De La Concorde, and through to the Louvre, and then back up Rue de Rivoli and off to Avenue FDR to the legendary Chocolatier Jadis et Gourmand . Then back up the Champs-Élysées to our hotel where we rest.

Then, later, we take the metro to Boulevard Haussmann to the Galleries Lafayette and Printemps so Samantha can get some Paris shopping in. Paris wasn’t crowded during the day except in the Galleries Lafayette and Printemps which were crowded beyond all measure. So, we went through them pretty quickly while she complained and bitched mightily. At night, it was a different story and Paris was swamped to the gills.

Due to the very low fog, we didn’t go up the Eiffel Tower or Arc Du Triomphe because they were obscured from view (see my Flickr blog). She’d done both of these on her previous trip to Paris, so it wasn’t a great loss. Still it was disappointing.

The entire time in Paris, Samantha complained about the weather and how cold and miserable she was and how much everything sucked. This despite the fact she wants to return to university at Syracuse which is considerably wetter and colder. When asked what she wanted to do, it was “I don’t know” and then when I picked something ,she didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t very fun. This kept up the entire trip and dragged the vibe down considerably.

When it came time for dinner, she wanted to go to McDonald’s. Really. In Paris! I refused. I selected a nice authentic French creperie and another restaurant and let her select which one. We ended up at the creperie because the other one was too crowded for her. The creperie was excellent. She hated it. She went to some other French fast-food place afterwards and got a take-away sandwich.

We didn’t eat breakfast at the hotel because it was €23 for a continental breakfast. That’s US$36 in case you’re not up on the exchange rate. Again, she wanted to go to McDonald’s but it was (happily) closed. I went to Paul — an excellent French patisserie — and got a great café au lait et une pan chocolaté et une croissant. C’est très bien. Samantha got cranky and went to some fast-food place without me. Don’t start me.

She was not very fun to be around and when questioned for a reason as to why, she said she didn’t like Paris. Paris, I might add is a wonderful city, though to its great misfortune, it’s populated with Parisians, some of the most insufferable people ever to walk the earth. Though in defence of Paris, we did go to a local coffee shop on the Champs-Élysées and the waiter there was fantastic. We got a fantastic, perfect, flawless cup of coffee, I might add. As we left that shop, Samantha muttered about how she got the wrong drink and not the one she ordered. Not true, I might add. She’s just terminally dissatisfied, I guess. Say whatever you want about the French, they know their foods and coffees and there really is no comparison.

Anyway, my flawed and defective French got us through the two days. She was so miserable, I suggested we pack off to EuroDisney and spend the night there instead of Paris. She agreed that was a most excellent idea and we took a very expensive cab ride — my fault for not taking the train. €70 down the tubes — or about $105. As we got near Marne-La-Vallee, France we hit utter gridlock of the Manhattan variety. Samantha was complaining bitterly about France, the French, the weather, and anything else she could find fault with. The cab driver didn’t speak English (thank God!) but he and I had a light chat and he said all the cars were all going to EuroDisney (properly called Disneyland Paris now).

Sure enough, we got there and the queue to even get in the hotel lobby (New York, New York) was insufferable. Even I felt a bit cranky at this point partly due to the line and partly due to not having had a little more time in Paris to do some stuff. We got the package which included the room, breakfast for two and park admission for the rest of that day and the next day too. It was so expensive I’m embarrassed to even tell you, though as a measure of a hint I’ll tell you I could have spent a weekend in Las Vegas — airfare included — for less. So, we finally make it through and check-in and, of course, the room isn’t ready and we go to the park.

My sister became the foul-mouth sailor. Everything was F-this and F-that. Now, I must tell you that if I notice swearing it’s got to be pretty damn bad. Seriously, I work around contractors and hear foul language as a matter of due course, and I rarely notice it. This was a tirade of F words that didn’t stop even after I mentioned it.

She didn’t want to go on most of the rides because the lines were too long. I’m not sure what sort of lines one expects on a major holiday weekend in a Disney park. I knew it would be bad, but even I was a little surprised at the 100 to 180 minute queues.

We ended up doing (over the course of the two half-days we were there) Space Mountain, Big Thunder, Indiana Jones, Star Tours, Pirates of the Caribbean, and then over at the Studio park Rockin Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror as well as a couple of shows (Animagique, Cinemagique). We could have done better, but we had Miss Attitude to contend with. It definitely continued to drag my mood down. If I’m not having fun at a Disney park, that’s just sad.

That night she wouldn’t even leave the room to go to dinner. So, I ended up going out by myself and getting some sandwich from the Disney Village and walking around for some time. The sandwich wasn’t half bad, actually. I was surprised she didn’t go with me: after all, they had a McDonald’s. Anyway, we did eat a nice dinner with exceptionally bad service (it’s France after all) before we went to the train station. We ended up killing a lot of time when we could have been having fun. I took her on a walk around the perimeter of the lagoon and she did naught but complain about how cold it was — light snow flurries — and didn’t do much except drag her feet. Literally — the entire trip — you could hear her feet shuffling. I wonder if she knows how to walk properly.

Our EuroStar train left Marne-La-Valle right on time for England, and now they even do the passport control right on the train. Samantha slept the entire trip through both stops in Lille and Ashford. EuroStar started going to St Pancras instead of Waterloo from 15 November, so it was nice to come into a brand-new train station. From St Pancras, we took a cab to our hotel, the Rembrandt. We checked-in and everything was wonderful. The hotel was totally re-done since my last stay in early 2006 and was absolutely spectacular, though my room had a temperature control difficulty, which was fixed the next morning. By difficulty I mean I was sweating buckets and it was around 40 degrees outside, but the window was locked. After putting our things away and unpacking, we went down to the tube station that night and picked up our Oyster cards (RFID tube tickets) to save time the next day. We tried to go to Sainsbury’s to pick up some supplies, but they were already closed for the night, so we ended up at a Lord’s instead — a definite downgrade.

I also begin to feel unwell that night and didn’t sleep due to violent coughing and woke up thoroughly sick the next day. Trooper that I am, we kept right to schedule.

We got up and ate at the hotel breakfast buffet as we did every day until the end of the trip. Before we left that morning, I asked the concierge to arrange show tickets for us and gave him detailed instructions after consulting with Samantha as to our choices. Also, it’s now Saturday 29 December 2007 if you’ve lost track. We got up early this day to go to Portobello Road market — though the market is open daily, the street market is open only on Saturdays. Samantha really didn’t like it at first, but once she found something she wanted, she didn’t hate it and almost smiled. She got a great bargain on a Le SportSac backpack, though at the price she paid, I strongly suspect it was a counterfeit. She used that backpack the rest of the trip. We got my dad an authentic Russian war medal, plus some other gifts I shan’t mention as they have yet to be distributed.

After that, we went by tube off to Oxford Street for my famous shopping walk tour (see my London web page for details). We did the whole walk including the Carnaby Street detour, at her request. I managed to buy one shirt. She bought England — I only partly jest. We then did the Book Store walk, which is not nearly as fun now that it’s all chain stores except for Foyle’s. I bought books, but you knew that before you even read this far. Then we went to Forbidden Planet where I bought absolutely nothing. Really. I am shocked. There just wasn’t anything that excited me enough to buy.

After returning to the hotel, I left on my own to visit the pharmacist and obtain some cough medicine. In the UK to get any sort of “real” drug you must speak to the pharmacist — it’s not self-serve like it is here in the USA. You get questioned as to your symptoms, allergies, and whatnot and then they make a recommendation. Also, in the UK a pharmacist can give you low-end prescription drugs for minor symptoms. The pharmacist was very knowledgeable, and she gave me two choices: one that tasted okay and would probably work and one that “tastes like shite” but would be guaranteed to work. I picked the nasty one. It wasn’t as bad a taste as the legendary TerpinHydrate with Codeine but it was close.

The concierge was very successful and got all four shows we asked for. My sister picked the plays except for one. Please note that fact. We ate at Pizza Express that night. We returned to the hotel. I didn’t sleep well at all. Lots of hacking and such. Sadly, the nasty stuff didn’t work, and I had another fitful night.

Sunday morning, we went to the British Museum for the one thing I wanted to see more than anything else on this trip: the Terra-Cotta Warrior exhibit. This is the first time they’ve been allowed out of China. I’ve not managed to see them on my past two trips to China due to their remote location (a six-hour flight from Shanghai). I was crushed to learn it was sold out through 4 January 2008. I consulted several ticket brokers and the hotel concierge with absolutely no luck. Down in flames — crushed. Really.

So, we were instead off to the London Zoo. We took a taxi, something I rarely do, favouring public transport instead. It just worked out better that way because Miss Grump was complaining about the walking even though we hadn’t really even walked all that much. She did a lot of complaining, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Just really grating, I have to say.

We got to the zoo and actually spent real time there. She seemed to enjoy herself. I was glad for that. After the zoo, we took a cab to Tottenham Court Road tube station and then walked to Covent Garden where we did the London Transport Museum. She was probably unhappy at my pace, but the museum has been closed nearly two years and they totally re-did the museum top to bottom and it’s a resounding success. I could bore you with details, but I shan’t do that except to say they took one of my favourite museums and made it even better. Afterwards, I took her to the Paul Frank Store because she loves that stuff.

Later that day I went back to the pharmacist. She prescribed two syrups this time: one for day use and one for night use. Linctus of something with Codeine. She also asked me again about my allergies and such. As a side note, when I mentioned my allergic reaction to Claritin-D she said she thinks I’m not allergic to the Claritin itself but the Pseudoephedrine in it. She suspects my body is metabolising the Pseudoephedrine too fast and that’s what caused the irregular heartbeat. She said I should consult with my doctor. These syrups didn’t cure my cough or mitigate it too much, but they sure did make me sleep. So, a partial victory anyway.

Sunday, we walked around Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square and we ate at Belgo Centraal that night, a fine Belgian restaurant. Then, we hopped the tube to Victoria and saw Billy Elliot. The theatre was unnaturally hot. Samantha didn’t seem to enjoy what is described as the best British Musical ever. It may just be the best play ever, but that’s my opinion. I will say the new kid isn’t as good as the old one, and a lot has to do with the fact he doesn’t look the part and it’s a tad bit distracting. He’s too tall and my guess he isn’t long for the role for that very reason. Still, it was fantastic though everyone in the audience had shed much of their over-clothing and was sweating.

Monday morning it was the London Eye because it was a clear day — a rare thing on a winter’s day in London. That went over well of course. Even the Grinch would like the Eye. It wasn’t too crowded, and we got on straight away, though there was an impressive queue when we got off, just before 11am. There was a Star Wars exhibit in the Aquarium building, which Grumpy asked if we could do. I thought it would be hokey crap, but I was so thrilled she suggested something I immediately approved. As it turned out, this was the Real Deal and had all the ORIGINAL models and costumes and was done by Lucasfilm itself. I took a huge number of photos because I was so impressed with it. We both really liked it. It was really good and we had a great time.

After that, it was off to the British Library. I showed her the Gutenberg Bible and she didn’t know what it was. I swear I am not making that up. I was ashamed. She had a general concept of what the Magna Carta was at least when I showed her that. She was totally unimpressed by seeing the original handwritten scores from some of the greatest composers to ever live. I love this place and, sadly, it was lost on her. I am not impressed with our modern educational system if this is what it turns out.

Monday afternoon we went to the Photographer’s gallery. At Miss Grumpy’s rate of speed we were done in, I kid you not, well under 15 minutes. I barely had time to spend a few seconds glancing my way through. That evening we went to Avenue Q at 5 O’clock as it was the only show for New Year’s Eve. A rousing performance and a grand old time. Everyone in the theatre laughed except one person. I dare you to guess who.

The crowds for New Year’s Eve are always excessive in London and this was no exception with nearly one million people crowding the area near the London Eye on the bank of the Thames for fireworks. Samantha became very frustrated with the crowds — and I do not blame her one bit for this — so we ended up going back to the hotel to watch on TV instead. This turned out to be a good move as there were, according to the morning Times, 90-minute queues at all the tube stations after the fireworks. We ate at McDonald’s that night because, sadly, all the restaurants that were open were booked solid and most were closed. Worst meal of the trip, of course. She liked it. ::rolls eyes::

Tuesday morning, we went off to the London Dungeon. This was her pick — there is no way would I pick or recommend this attraction. When we got there, it wasn’t open yet because it was New Year’s morning and they had late opening hours, so we trudged down to our next stop, the Design Museum (another of her picks) which we both were very disappointed in. She hated it and so did I, though they have one of the best gift shops outside the Tate Modern. There just really wasn’t anything of interest. After that, we went back to the London Dungeon. It was not scary, frightening, gory, or horrible, nor was it very interesting. It was way overpriced for what you get. She swore most of the way through. I don’t blame her, but still….

Then it was off to the Science Museum. We did the whole thing, and she didn’t complain much so maybe that meant she liked it. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel for a rest. Then it was off for dinner at Rules. Everyone should eat at Rules at least once on every trip through London — it’s been an institution there for well over 200 years — since 1798. A fine, fine, dinner and an excellent dessert. Then it was off to the theatre to see Spamalot.

I didn’t know what to expect of Spamalot. I like Monty Python, of course — but one never knows what to expect of them. The play was stupid by anyone’s standards, but I laughed a lot. I even think Grumpy almost smiled once or twice, even. And a small spoiler: never sit in row D, seat 1 unless you care to be dragged upon stage and made part of the show even if you’re unwilling. The leading lady was one of the most amazing singers I’ve ever heard. Seriously, she was a tour-de-force all by herself.

Wednesday morning was our last day in London, and I am sad to report I was relived this trip was over. How sad is that? We did Westminster Abbey at Samantha’s request and at her pace: that is to say we were there less than 20 minutes. If you’ve ever been, you understand that’s quite the achievement and not one to be proud of. Then it was off to the Tate Modern in Southwark. We did that and, as you all know, art museums I do at a steady pace, but I was having trouble keeping up with her. They might have paintings on the wall, but we were moving so fast, it’s hard to be sure.

Afterwards, we walked across the Millennium Bridge and to the Bank of England where I wanted to see the Bank of England Museum. However, the speed at which she went through it was pretty much hard to see anything. After that, we went to the hotel to drop off some stuff and adjust our layers of clothing. Then, it was off to Harrods where we split up to meet back at the hotel at 5pm.

I thought I’d buy Confessor (just out in hardback) earlier in the trip but at £20 that was over $40 and I figured I’d wait until I got home, as that’s way too much for a book. I did see it at another shop for £14.99 and decided it was still better to wait until I got home. I was in Harrods and saw a stack marked at £4.99 or about $10. I grabbed a copy and took it to the register where I was informed it was a mis-mark, and I certainly agreed since that’s less than a paperback costs and this was a fresh release hardback. To my surprise, they said they’d sell it to me anyway, so I got it. The review is in my blog.

I got lost looking for the stairwell out of Harrods, so I asked someone where they hid the damn thing. I was directed to go through antiquities, past minerals and fossils, and I would find it there. I did, stopping to admire the dinosaur fossils for US$¼ Million and up including a genuine brontosaur bone and a woolly mammoth tusk. I also admired a pyrite chunk from a meteor, which I may yet buy if we can figure out how to transport it to the USA. I walked by the art gallery where I accidentally bought a painting, which should be here in two weeks. We shan’t discuss what getting lost in Harrods cost me.

That night we went to Bunches of Grapes pub for dinner and then to the Lyceum for Lion King. It was a very long, bitterly cold walk. Samantha was in a foul mood for reasons I can’t disclose because they’re a mystery. She was in an even worse mood after spending fifteen minutes in queue for the loo. We got to our seats just as the play started. It’s a great play, and one of the best I’ve ever seen but not this performance. There was no projection from many of the actors and if you can’t hear, you can’t experience the play. There was the occasional breach of the fourth wall by trying to funny, inexcusable. I was unhappy about it, but enjoyed the show on a visual level. Samantha slept through parts. Not one play we saw got a standing ovation on this trip. They don’t give those away so easy in London. And that’s good when you have to earn them. Anyway, we walked to Embankment tube and went back to the hotel to pack and to bed. It snowed a bit that night.

We got up bright and early, checked out before breakfast and took a cab to Victoria and hopped on the Gatwick Express. At the airport, we checked-in, and went to the lounge where they served a hot breakfast. Yep. HOT! Continental shares the Emirates lounge at Gatwick now. It was very pleasant and very posh including a hot buffet, a cold buffet, free internet, bathrooms, showers, and the like. I didn’t feel well and I’m not sure if that bathroom will ever be the same again.

We went to the gate, and they boarded the flight about 20 minutes late, and we left without much further delay. On the flight Grumpy slept. I watched a film called Across the Universe which is a quirky film set to Beatles music. I had heard of it before but never went to see it because of highly questionable reviews, but I must say I rather enjoyed it.

We arrived Newark about 15 minutes early, cleared immigration without difficulty, reclaimed our bags and then cleared customs quickly. We re-checked our bags, and then took the tram to the C terminal for our flight home.

We got in the lengthy security queue. We had almost cleared security when some guy came running through and asked to cut so he could get his flight. Nobody objected and the usually bitchy TSA took pity and let him through. He threw his jacket on top of mine as it went through the x-ray machine. After passing through the detector machines, he grabbed his jacket and ran off. I grabbed mine and started to walk towards the gate. Moments later I realized my passport was gone! He’d taken it! Not much could be done because we didn’t know where he got off too. I asked TSA for help, but they said they couldn’t do anything. I realized I’d have to call the Passport Office and report it missing as soon as I got home. Happily, a few moments before our flight was to board, I was paged to security. My passport was turned in before he boarded his flight. All was well.

We boarded our flight 30 minutes later, arrived home about 30 minutes late and then waited about one hour for our damned luggage. Or to be accurate mine was about 20 minutes and Grumpy’s was about the last off. And that concluded the trip.

I’m still sick. I didn’t enjoy myself very much, and so basically I didn’t have a real vacation in 2007.

I still love my sister, but I can’t say this was the best time we ever had together. I am sure one or both parental units will inform me I was like this when I was a teenager (minus the swearing.)

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