Hey kids! Its Boxing Day!
Yep, I'm American, and for me, that means, well, absolutely nothing. I'm not even going to bore you with an explanation of what it is because really, who cares. Look it up on Google search like I would if I wasn't so freaking lazy.
Someone posted about this non-holiday and I found myself thinking about the only time I gave a hoot in Hades about it. And really, I didn't start out caring, I just found out the hard way that I should have.
In the winter of 1991, I spent my January term of senior year in the north of Ireland. (I won't bore you with the details, those of you who have any notions about that can probably tell what color my curb is painted just by my calling it that but its a story for another time.) My plan was to leave just after Christmas, fly to England, spend a week with a friend, and take the ferry to Belfast. I bought my plane tickets and made my arrangements. Departure, 26 December. Arrival, 27 December, crack of dawn.
Okay, so whether I think its pointless or not, Boxing Day is a holiday. Stuff is closed, people are off work, life slows down. Guess when life picks back up again. Yep, December 27th.
I dutifully watch the instructional film on going through customs at Heathrow while on the plane, disembark starry-eyed, and start walking. As I do so, I'm having incredibly stupid thoughts that I'm glad no one is around to hear. "Wow! I'm in England! I'm not in the US anymore! Those are English fluorescent bulbs! Those are English floor tiles! Wow!" (Shut up. I was 21 and my passport was as stiff as a pair of new shoes. )
I collect all my luggage, answer the requisite questions, get my 'Leave to Enter Three Months' visa, and look for the bus terminal.
It is important to note a couple of things here. One, I am alone. Two, no one is picking me up. Three, I am bound for LIVERPOOL. Four, my luggage consists of a loaded backpack, a leather jacket, an Army duffel bag loaded to the clasp that weighs about 60 pounds, and a guitar. Hey. I didn't know what I'd need. So I brought it.
I am from the Philadelphia area. We have an airport. From any terminal, its about a five minute brisk walk to the curb. The train? Its right there. The bus? Right there. Cabs? Right there. Heathrow, on the other hand, is approximately the size of the state of Delaware. I'm pushing my luggage through Delaware and, apparently, the National Express terminal is in Newark. At a certain point, I ditch the luggage trolley, convinced someone is going to think I am stealing it because I could not possibly be walking this far and still be in the airport.
Finally, I reach the National Express office and walk into what sounds to me like an open casting call for Eastenders. I approach the counter and explain to the woman whose facial expression managed to be both bored and murderous at the same time that I needed to go to Liverpool.
Yes, today. I give her a couple of bills with pictures of my grandma in a tiara on them and she gives me a ticket with a giant neon sticker on the cover. It says STANDBY PASSENGER. I go to the curb, call my friend, and tell him where I am. He sort of laughs. Then he tells me to call him when I get to Liverpool.
The next three hours involves buses coming and my not getting on them, whilst being gazed upon with pity by a few dozen people with giant plastic sacks of Christmas presents. I go back inside and offer counter woman my firstborn if she can get me on the bus. She assures me that I should get on the next one.I drag my luggage back outside and wait.
The next bus comes, and bless the Lord, oh my soul, they let me on. I shove what I can in the storage compartment underneath, hoist my backpack into my lap, and away we go.
Some geography-- London and Liverpool are 328 km apart. 205 miles. They are connected by major highways. Its essentially a Harrisburg to Pittsburgh hop.
Unless you board the chainsmoking compulsive tourguide excursion bus from hell.
My friend at National Express didn't explain to me that my salvation bus was one that would stop in EVERY. SINGLE. TOWN. between London and Liverpool. Oh, she didn't explain a lot of things. Like if I had taken the Tube to Victoria Station, I could have gotten a direct bus that would have taken me there in about 3 hours. I can only believe that she's had a run in with the karma train already on that score. She just wanted a jetlagged American who looked like she had come for the World Busking Championships out of her face. Fair enough.
I put on my headphones and passed out face first in my backpack. I was the sort of tired where conversation was ill-advised. But my seatmate managed to extract from me that I was a first time visitor to the Isles. So every so often, I'd get poked.
"Look. This is Stratford. Shakespeare's from here."
"Look. We just passed through (wherever). (Random history fact.)"
I contemplate, but ultimately reject, a degree of rudeness I've never ever exhibited.
Soon, her attentions would be the least of my worries. The bus swings into a huge terminal, stops, and everyone stands up. Am I here? I thought. Did I make it?
It is evening, I have been awake for 52 hours straight, and I am in Birmingham, England.
I can only assume that the REST of Birmingham is lovely. This part of Birmngham looks like a disused cattle auction. But nevermind that, EVERYONE IS GETTING OFF. I talk to the driver.
"What happens now?"
"Changeover, love, go over there and they'll tell you where to go."
At this point I am physically incapable of carrying sixty pounds of duffel bag, a backpack, a leather jacket, and a guitar. I simply stand between the buses and cry. A group of people gathers around me, studiously avoiding eye contact and, apparently, waiting for the bus I'm waiting for. They start to chat, to verify this fact, and quickly discover that while half of them are going my way, half of them are not, and all of them have been instructed to wait for the same bus. Say what you want about Americans, y'all, but these people were ready to throw down the giant bags of Christmas presents and rumble to see whether we were going to Dover or Liverpool. Once the discussion volume got a bit past civilized a group of uniformed National Express employees streamed out of an office and interceded. Someone points me to a bus. I flex my now dislocated shoulders for one more luggage carry.
Now, its dark. I have no idea what time it is, all I know is that I am on a bus, on a highway, headed to Liverpool, four days before smoking on public transport is banned forever in the UK, and everyone is making the very very most of their last four days. Oh, and traffic is completely gridlocked, just in case I was feeling homesick. Well meaning fellow travellers are still trying to make conversation.
I finally arrive in Liverpool, and can't shake the weird sensation I'm still somewhere around Newark, New Jersey. (Liverpool is somewhat nicer by day so don't be offended.) My friend comes to collect me. He says "How was the trip?" I muster the last of my strength and hang the sixty pound duffel bag on his shoulder. For now, I'm home.
Next installment: Why Its Important to Make Sure the Ferry You've Planned To Take Actually Still Exists.
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