Thursday, September 27, 2007

Journey to London: Part Two

September 20th, London

We awoke as the pilot turned the cabin lights on and the steward asked: “would you like tea or coffee?” God, what a terribly British question, I thought. Ground time in London was 6:30 am, but by our internal clocks, still set to Eastern Time, it was not quite 2:00 in the morning. “Tea” just wasn’t going to cut it, and you’d think any one with half a brain could see that.

Seated in the middle aisle of the plane, I got just the briefest glimpse of Wales over the wing before we began our final decent into Heathrow. Finally, we were down with a pretty substantial couple of bumps. Wonder how the cats took that, I thought.

Upon exiting the aircraft, we found ourselves walking through what seemed miles and miles of featureless concourses going nowhere. Finally, we arrived at the end of a very, very, very long line. We could hear the crisp British accents of a prerecorded announcement telling us to “please fill out your landing card. Please follow the appropriate signs. Please fill out the card in English.” Probably, the people who designed this area hadn’t thought that people would be cued up half as long as they were, because the same short message repeated over and over again until we thought we’d loose our minds.

Finally, after about an hour and a half of waiting in the long snake-like line, we arrived at the desk of the customs agent, a small blond girl about 20 years old. She took a quick look at our passports, stamped them, and we were officially in the United Kingdom. We proceeded to collect our luggage (many bags DO look alike, so chose something distinctive to mark yours with!) and then we tried to grab a quick cup of coffee. The lines however, were far too long.

Still, we had a few pieces of paper and wrappers we wanted to get rid of, and I went looking for the nearest trash bin. And that’s when I discovered something curious about the British that I’d never known from simply reading their history and watching their TV.

The British don’t seem to believe in trash.

I walked from one end of Heathrow to the other, and couldn’t seem to find a single, solitary rubbish container. Not even in the restroom. Very odd, I thought. I’d never really thought about it before, but in the States, we put trash cans about every fifty feet and shopping malls and airports are practically CRAWLING with them. Not here, however, it would seem.

Next we walked outside, and I knew for sure that we really were in England. For, at the taxi stand were not the traditional yellow autos of American fame, but instead the big black old fashioned looking cabs from the movies- wow! Now, we are really here.

Our driver threaded us through streets, alleys and access roads as we navigated an airport even larger than Logan. Finally, we arrived at a dull drab non-descript building called the “Animal Reception Centre” Little did we know then what a large and unpleasant role this place would play in our lives.

As we got out of the taxi, and tipped the driver 20% .When he saw the amount, he said: “are you sure?” Then after we started to walk away, he looked a bit sheepish, and called back to us: “Luk, uhm, you’ve joost given me a very generous tip, so I want ter give ya a bit of advice…you don’t need to tip so much here, and yu’ve got ter remember that our money is more expensive than yours. Here, 10% is good.” We thanked him for his advice, said goodbye and waved him off like an old friend. (When you are 3081 miles from home, everybody who is nice to you for five minutes starts to feel like family- it is important to remember that they don’t always feel the same way.)

As we walked up to the Animal Reception Centre, a very official lady in a uniform approached us. “Are you the Pr---‘s?” she asked.

“Yes, we have two cat’s we’re here to pick up.”

“Right. Uhm, I wanted to talk with you about that actually.” She must have seen the fear immediately rise in our faces, for she quickly continued: “They’re fine…they’re both fine…but uhm, Buffy, is it? Buffy’s paperwork doesn’t seem to be in order and I wonder if we could talk to you about it.”

Well, it seemed that, while Buffy had had all of the appropriate vaccinations and microchip implants, they had not been done in the correct order. Buffy had had an up to date Rabies shot, and it seems that, despite reading the paperwork, our friendly Vermont Vet didn’t feel that it was necessary for him to have another.

The British are quite strict about this. They have no rabies on their Island, and they are determined to keep it that way. The country has only recently ended the mandatory sixth month quarantine for all incoming pets.

It was decided that there was enough ambiguity about Buffy’s paper work that it was decided that we would wait until our Vet’s office opened at nine and see if they could sort the whole thing out. It was 8:30am in London which meant that it was 3:20am Eastern inside of our very tired and frightened heads and that we would be waiting in the Animal Reception Centre’s Reception Area until 2:00.

Despite a water fountain, some overstuffed couches, some outdated magazines and a very expansive view of a fuel dump across the road, the waiting room at the Animal Reception Centre is not quite as pleasant a place is it might sound. And signs warned us that it could be more unpleasant still: “The Animal Reception Centre has a ZERO tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior and police will be summoned.”

My guess is that many overwrought Australians have pitched shit-hissy fits when they found they couldn’t import their dingoes that the City of London found it necessary to post the sign. Thank God we Americans have a better reputation for politeness and understanding.

And so, with out much hope, and worried sick about Buffy (the stress of the trip in the car had exhausted both Buff and Izzy- we could only imagine how much more the plane may have terrified- this was the reason we had decided not to risk Fluffy in travel- but at 12, Buffy is no spring chicken either and we were very worried. Bobbi doesn’t cry…ever…but I think she was close) we huddled up together on the couch and tried to get a little sleep.

As morning slowly turned into afternoon, people came and went…the average wait seemed to be about 2 to 3 hours. Most people avoided us like we had some bureaucratic plague for most of their stay…but often, just before they took their pets and left, they would come over, ask us a few questions and express sympathy.

At long last, 2pm came, and so did the lady from the quarantine center…bringing the worst possible news: Buffy would not be allowed to enter the United Kingdom. Our options were simple…we could send him back to Boston (where we had no family or close friends within 200 miles) or we could keep him locked up in quarantine for six months.

We were, of course, boiling with unanswered questions: how could we do this? Who could we ask for such a massive favor (please drive 4 to 5 hours to Boston, wait in customs, collect our cat, and, if he survived the trip, take him to Bobbi’s parents in Albany), and most importantly, would the little guy make it back across the Atlantic Ocean safely and, if not, how the hell would we live without Buffy in the world?

Virgin Airlines and the Animal Reception Centre lady told us that we could take the rest of the day to sort out the details and let them know. Animal Reception Centre was also quite kind about not being too strict on Buffy’s 48 hour stay- if it ran over by half a day because of the flight, we were not to worry.

The only answer possible to our dilemma slowly presented itself. We would have to ask Bobbi’s long suffering and kind hearted parents if they would take the day, drive to Boston, and pick up the cat for us.

We collected Izzy, who had buried herself beneath the shredded newspaper the airlines had placed in her cage, and waited for the “mini-cab” that Virgin had called for us. (There are two types of taxi in London, we learned. The licensed big Black ones, and then private taxis called mini-cabs. These are less expensive than the official ones, but can be a bit sketchy since just anyone can drive one. They are not “mini” in size, however, most being regular full sized sedans…they are, however much smaller than the massive Black cabs…the back seats of which are large enough to accommodate a wheelchair!)

Our trip through London was, for me, quite hair-raising. Although I’d been intellectually prepared for driving on the left, the idea of doing it at high speeds in heavy traffic was a bit like riding a roller coaster…not my favorite activity. Bobbi had an even more stimulating experience…she sat in the front of the cab in what would have been the drivers seat…doing nothing as she hurtled down the wrong side of the road into heavy traffic.

London is, of course, very old, and one of our guidebooks pointed out that, unlike many Continental cities, London never really tore itself down to rebuild with broad boulevards and avenues…thus, like Boston, there are no straight lines and very few wide streets…wherever a cow happened to look for a bite of grass in 1066, that is where they put the road. This resulted in amazingly tiny streets, which Londoners hurtle down with complete nonchalance. Although there is no room for two way traffic, it is permitted, and one car must give way to the other…it’s interesting to watch the organic way in which it all seems to happen.

We found our apartment and were pleasantly surprised. It is a wonderful neighborhood, clean streets, and big white rows of houses...inside, we found hardwood floors, nine foot windows, and a spacious kitchen and bedroom. The spare room, which we are using as an office, is a bit small…so when people come to visit us, they’ll have to be prepared.

We let poor little Izzy out of the cage, where she had been huddled like a miserable little black puddle of what had once been cat, and she immediately poured herself out of the cage and under the bed.

We were happy with the apartment, and excited to be in London, but the pall of having been separated from Buffy, not even being allowed to see him, and having no real idea how he would get home, or what shape he’d be in when he arrived, hung over us and kept us from being truly able to relax and enjoy.

No comments: