Sunday, 25 March 2007

The Big...Finish? aka Dharma Initiative, Eurostar style

Jokes that are funny when your co-prisoners/passengers tell them at 5am:

Q: What do you call a Nun sitting on a Clown?

A: Virgin on the ridiculous

The following post takes place between about 8:43pm and 10:00am, although with two European time zones and daylight savings time thrown in, I can't really be sure.

It's 4AM or 5AM, depending on what country I'm in, and I'm on a half-filled coach bus on the French side of the EuroTunnel, lost in a maze of a parking lot that resembles something like a Disneyworld lot mixed with those back and forth lines the same park uses for crowd control----oh, nevermind. We just found ourselves. Right by border control, who is doing a full search of the car in front of us.

We have been in (or will have been, once this journey is done) - four distinct time zones/periods over 12 hours. I catch a plane back to America in 6 hours.

[A French DOUANES border agent just came on board the bus and is looking around with a flashlight, scouring the bus with a distinctly French attitude.]

Here is the basic story until this point, just so I don't lose any details in my expected exhaustion. ("This is just like the Odyssey," - one of my co-passengers)

We got to Paris at...[Another f-in gate to go through...British Passport control this time.
And shit. To make the entire situation more confusing, we just found out that after all this time with him, that our driver doesn't speak English.)

Let's try that again.

Anyway...we(Dan, Emily, Me) got to Paris at 12:15AM yesterday and left at....
[We have to get off the bus for Passport control now.]

30 minutes later....

I'm back. I ever tell you about the time I got two British immigration stamps in five hours and my coach bus full of angry people almost killed a portly, friendly Eurotunnel official trying to help us?

Oh, right. That's this.

As I was saying, we got to Paris at 12:15AM local time and left at 8:45PM. I'll tell the Paris story later. It's a good one on it's own, but nothing compared to what's happening.

This was/is our journey out of France: Remember that France is an hour ahead, time zone wise, of England, and that at 2am the clocks in both countries were springing forward, and that we were all travelling between the two zones as that happened. And that the US has already gone through daylight savings time, making the time difference change as the clocks change.

8:43PM: We depart Paris-Nord train station by Eurostar.
9:50PM: We slow to a stop. No one worries immediately.
9:55PM: Train starts. There is a bang. The train shuts down.
10:05: Train revs up. Starts. Bang. Shut down.
Over the next twenty-five minutes, we start and stop several times, each time accompanied by what sounds like the train shutting down completely. The train manager makes announcements, usually in French and English, sometimes delaying the English just enough to piss us off, that there are "electrical problems."

Electrical problems? Here's what he meant:

While making the most vital Sam Adams Good Decision of my life when I raided the food car for food, drink, etc, (as soon as the train passengers realized what was going on, they sold out.) , someone told me they had seen a spark of some sort out a window. With that in mind, I was looking out a window about four cars in front of the electric/engine when I saw a huge spark/flash fly up the side of the train as they tried to start it.

We weren't going anywhere.

Here's the short version: With only one power supply working, the Chunnel staff wouldn't let us through. We were about 30 minutes before the tunnel, so just about halfway between Paris and London. But without being able to go through the tunnel, we were forced to go forward 15 minutes to Calais, where the captain turned off the train completely(including all lights), walked the length of the train(outside of course, in order to avoid the quickly angering passengers), got in on the other side, and brought us BACK into France, to Lille, where I learned a life lesson in mob mentality.

Here's the scene at Lille.

1. First we are told that there will be customer agents waiting to assist us -- all 500 passengers or so -- in the train station when we got off. Nope. Hundreds of people essentially locked in a departure area with one or two service reps being verbally assaulted at every turn, and giving contradictory information every minute. There's nothing quite like being a Jew locked in a French train station in a huge crowd. Disturbing.

2. Every time a few people moved off in one direction, 100 would follow, thinking it was some sort of new development. After 40 minutes of this, and befriending a girl flying back to Israel around the time of my flight, and listening to a couple half-assed announcements that said 'agents would be out soon,' the entire crowd breached a door and shifted outside the waiting area....the couple agents that braved us were getting absolutely physically abused at this point, which didn't really improve anything. But it was amusing.

The lack of coordination and information was ridiculous. First an agent said there would be a train to England at 6am, perfect for those of us with early flights. Then we were told there was nothing until 8:30, and that there wasn't a lot of room on that train, but there were no other options until, potentially, later in the week. Finally, the entire crowd was simply told to take a piece of paper with some hotel information on it, and go outside to get buses to the assigned hotels.

While the mad dash for the "magical hotel sheets" was going on, they had to call in security(very French, of course) to help...I was getting elbowed while I was grabbing reservations for two double rooms...some French dude in a white 90's era track suit was absolutely berating an older guy for not getting the right hotel or something. Intense shit.

And the entire time, no word on how anyone is supposed to get back to London, if we're supposed to pay, or if we're making it back at any point. Dan and I are kind of enjoying ourselves through all of it, although I wasn't looking forward to paying the $1300 to take the next available flight if I missed mine.

So Dan, Emily, Shir(Israel girl), and I go outside...and the Crowne Plaza is across the street, thereby negating the need for the bus. At the hotel, we grab rooms, and are told by a chill Eurostar rep that "something is being arranged[for your flights], but go to your rooms and come back down." Sick.

(Aside: French trendy decor in a Crowne Plaza involves clear acrylic chairs offset by brown leather benches at the foot of the beds. Bon.)

It's 2:30 or so at this point. We go back downstairs, and are told that the plan is that a Coach bus is going to bring us to Calais, where we will hop the shuttle to England; from there taxis and ANOTHER bus are going to be waiting to take us anywhere we want to go in the airport directly, or to our places to get luggage first. SALVATION.

Except...remember the French Tracksuit Screamer?

Yeah, you got it. He was the bus driver.

* * *

FTS gets us to Calais (that's where we had STARTED hours earlier when we turned the train around) where the plan was to put the bus on a DIFFERENT train that goes through the tunnel. Fantastic, except that we managed to miss the planned train at 4am and the next one doesn't leave until 6:30. AAAAAND now you get the beginning of this entry.

(Added postscript: It got better. We had to clear immigration, passport, French border security for the second time on this trip. Immigration/border didn't know what to do with us, because we hadn't technically ever left France. We got lost in the border compound. We're told that because we missed the initial train, it is unknown if the bus or taxis will be waiting for us on the other side.
The bus natives turned restless, and one stupid American kept asking if we could 'screw the train, and just drive through on our own.' And--to repeat--our driver doesn't speak English, leaving an Israeli woman to translate between French and English for us. Like any good Israeli, she has taken total control, including insulting the driver in French, and translating it for us so we know what variation of 'asshole' she used.)

Now, our bus is loaded into a coach at the head of the train, waiting to go to England were busses or taxis or llamas are waiting to bring us to Waterloo station in the heart of London. Or maybe it's another bus to Waterloo where the llamas will be waiting? I don't even know anymore.

I still don't know if I'm making my flight. I think I will, but we're cutting it close. If the train leaves 6:30 French time, and arrives at 6:10 English time...and we can get to London in 60 minutes total...20 minutes to Emily's, 10 minutes to get ready, and 40 to the airport...I might just make it.

Regardless, I'm enjoying my Real World/Lost/Survivor/the Terminal cast of characters and vibe. And by enjoying, I could stand for a few of them to get caught in immigration. Which, by the way, was a very real possibility in France.

* * *
Everyone's getting punchy. People are telling bizarre stories like, "I once got arrested for stealing a rock in Cambodia," and "I once went swimming on one side of a dam and was found five days later on the other side. I don't remember a thing."

* * *
6:24AM, Brit time
I feel like we're in the process of entering something of a no man's land. We got into England ok, and pulled into the 'Total' petrol/gas station in the exit area of the big depot to meet the other bus. Which wasn't there. Somewhat egged on and convinced by a couple passengers, FTS decided to drive on to see if there was another 'Total Petrol' right outside the compound. Kind of made sense...there is no way the other bus would be allowed into the Eurotunnel compound just to go to the exit area to meet us.

Ah, but a problem: Our driver a)doesn't know how to drive in England; b)Is exhausted; c)isn't really allowed to drive more than a certain distance overall and in England. Oh, right. THE BUS ISN'T DESIGNED FOR THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE ROAD!

But we go on, can't find another station, so turn around to go back into the complex to search for the other bus. Now we're about to convince security to let us in, even though we just left and have no desire to cross back to France. This could get interesting to explain.

WE ARE THE 25 LOST ONES...WE ARE THE 25....It's been about a nine hour journey so far. I could have swam the channel at this rate.

* * *

So we were let in past the initial security, but had to pull off to the side (imagine a big toll plaza) while they found an official vehicle to lead us back to the exit area....this all sounds silly, but it is a border crossing, so security is understandable. Anyway, a few key passengers managed to berate the hell - again - out of some British Eurotunnel people who had nothing to do with our problem, and were just trying to help.

We sat on the bus unmoving - again - for about 30 minutes before a worker hopped in her personal Toyota two door and brought us to the gas station we had been at earlier...where there was now the other bus and a taxi waiting. The Israeli translate lady gets on the bus driver's cell phone and tells us that the Eurostar officials are still saying we will still make it back in time, that cabs are waiting for us at this point I'm heavily considering calling Sky News or the BBC. It's been 11 hours or so since we left Paris. I think Ill barely make my flight, but by the time we get to Waterloo at 9am, there are no cabs....

Emily and I take the tube home; Dan goes home to get his car to pick us up...Emily calls to check-in for me while I throw the last of the French stuff in my luggage, and they tell her it is going to be too late for me to check-in. To fly out tonight would cost over $1600...even if I convince Eurostar to pay for it, I can't front that. I take a Monday night flight for an additional $200 or so, Ill work it out later....

Anyway, this is the SHORT version...there are hilarious side anecdotes I left out, like the Cambodian rock girl convinced she was bleeding out from a finger cut she got on the Eurostar...or Shir not realizing the crossing was underwater...or Emily singing the wheels on the bus...or the guy at Lille shouting "DOES ANYONE KNOW ANYTHING," and hearing 500 people shout "NO" at once...but the point is, I am in London until tomorrow night, and my body clock is going to be absolutely FUBAR.

But, a hell of a story, huh?

CUZ DAN, circa 7:30AM British Time: "If there's one thing that symbolizes the British of the 21st century, it's the high-visibility jacket."

Thursday, 22 March 2007


It's late and I'm exhausted...just got back from snowboarding. Indoors. In England.

Anyway, hard to believe the trip is about done. Tomorrow night is Paris with Dan and Emily, back here Saturday night, and I fly out Sunday.

Hell of a week.

Yesterday was a big touristy day for me---I'll post pictures later, but I did the Tower of London(wicked quick) and was the last person of the day to see the Crown Jewels and the armory. (HIGHLIGHTS: the axe that supposedly killed Anne Bolyon, and King someone's crown from 16something. I told you I'm tired)

I also walked the Thames for a while...had a great non-mad cow burger with Dan across the street from St. Paul's, (As an aside, we're opening a company dedicated to bringing our favorite restaurants of US/England across the ocean) and climbed the Monument to the 1666 fire. Sick views from up there, but between St. Paul's, the Tower of London, and the Monument, if I see another spiral staircase that goes up 20 stories, I am going to scream. I swear...I'm tired of looking right as I go up stairs, and I think I've developed a permanent lean.

Today was a antiques/craft, etc market----I bought some cool stuff [note: everything at a British antiques fair is either "Victorian" "roman" "Norman" or made of "gold" "silver" or "pewter" if you listen to the dealers.]

But the highlight was when I came across the "Alternative Fashion Week: Sponsored by Swatch." Wait until you see these outfits...costumes? I don't even know, but the pictures are like if Marilyn Manson was dressed by a blind first-year design student with Parkinson's and a flair for the dramatic.

Anyway...crashing time, but I'll get those pictures up soon.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

I ramble, part 2

And then there's this part of London...

A long (for these purposes, endless) stretch of industrial tan and brown brick flats...
Not nearly contrasting enough with a suddenly gray-black sky that is now releasing white drops of snow, forming a hint of a glimmer on the black tar.

It's a black and white and sepia toned world.

The only splash of spot coloring comes from the primary blue doors set into the tan brick.
And the blue lights flashing. And the red and yellow (or yellow and red) signs on the convenience stores, conveniently stretching mirrored to the flats.....

This is the drab London. Not even the character of Hackney. Just...blah.

I ramble, part one

Some thrown together excerpts from something I wrote midday sitting in a dark-wood and mirrors (very ornate) pub in Covent Garden...

"...London can be a bit -- well, grand -- but the friendliness, the grandeur, the parties, the history, the scope...the damn nice accent....

I've been here a matter of days. I've barely explored, distance wise, but every single place I see, there's something about it.

Small quaint villages reeking with history?
Total urban centers with shopping, clubs...all reeking with something else entirely?
Pubs on every corner and a liberal public open-container policy?

And then there's that accent....

It's funny. Inevitable, but funny, but I keep drawing comparisons & finding similarities to my favorite places in the US and elsewhere. The truth is, there are a lot of similarities, especially in the proliferation of American businesses, but the utter concentration of EVERYTHING in one city is what impresses me. Maybe it's related to the public transportation being so widespread...but that's only part of the answer. Even walking today, I've been through small parks in tiny neighborhoods, Roman-style alley ways, a breakfast spot that reminded me of home, Chinatown, a Quincy/Fanueil Hall type market(but bigger)...and that's by 2pm, when I'm now downing a Strongbow...

I guess Boston is the closest comparison, but it's like Boston with New York's scope.

Anyway, even with its quirks, it's an utterly charming city. "Utterly charming..." how fucking British of me....

I can see why writers, actors, artists, creative types have made it home or at least done some great work here. There's this energy that feeds into the creative soul without the same cynicism as some other "hubs."....

Shooting my camera off

It's been a long time since I've allowed myself to explore a city with almost no time limits, and only a vague sense of direction and what I want to do...and it feels good.

Today was breakfast(the best spot I've found), Chinatown, Covent Garden (Quincy Market's older, much cooler brother), St. Paul's Cathedral (my legs are twitching from the climb) some aimless wandering, and a dinner of dim sum (another place I need to bring to the states...)

There are a few pictures here--go to the temp album here.

I'm still having trouble getting my computer online, so this isn't everything I want to share, and there are some repetitions, but enjoy.

(I've broken up this entry into a couple parts...this one will have pictures, the next one has a few more thoughts.)

1. Monday night was the "Australian" club Walkabout. There are a few locations of this chain in town, but this one is a cross between a Miami-beach superclub with pulsing music, "txt-to-screen" video boards, a great crowd...and and an overly crowded bar serving cheap $1 drafts on a Monday night in a broken down big old church. Which it was. Except it was pounds, not dollars. Anyway, this is what 300 international ravers look like dancing to Bryan Adams on the "quiet" level. Moving on...

2. Earlier Monday, I ended up going on Emily's field trip to a mansion on a hillside in London. Totally picturesqueue. Totally invented, down to the facade of a bridge. I felt cheated, so I'm not posting any pictures of the building itself. Instead, just a shot I liked of one of the ponds on the grounds. The other shot is of an old-time tea-house at the edge of the parkland, in the middle of the village. The entire scene reminded me of the French/Luxembourgish villages I visited a few years back.

3. Chinatown. Very small compared to other cities, but I got there before the restaurants or markets really got going, so delivery trucks lined the neighborhood to get the stores ready for the day. Octopus were cooking in the windows, everyone was rushing to get felt like a daily theater production of sorts. (Check these out on the web album, especially of the guy looking at me through the hanging food.)

4. Covent Garden. As described, basically an open air market mixed with shops...easy to get lost in, with tons of sections. Handmade stuff, commercial stuff...I picked up some sweatshirts, a jersey, a very cool clock I can't really describe, some gifts...and managed not to spend an exorbitant amount of money, even after the conversion. There weren't that many street performers on a weekday, although an opera singer was serenading us from the food court...

5. In and around St. Paul's. Overwhelmingly huge in every way. I'm not a church guy(obviously)...but this was incredible. I took an exorbinate number of pictures inside and outside the church, and of other sites in the neighborhood. I explored quite a bit, and am heading here tomorrow to look for some Roman ruins I missed. That's Christchurch on the right---now the entrance to Morgan Stanley. The gallery has a load of shots from St. Paul's, inside and out; and the city skyline from the top of the church. The best shots of the church dome actually came from a hallway along the 400 steps to the top...there was a tiny window busted open that I was able to stick the camera through for a great shot. Very touristy overall, but some of my favorite shots thus far.


Oh, you want a picture from Dim Sum? Too bad...all you're getting is Spiderman on the Tube.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Liverpool invasion

A few [30] pics -- including several of Emily -- from the past couple [insane] days. More to come as I get time down the road to edit and compile.

Couple quick stories...refer to the pictures to help you along.

1. The cannon, the section of the Berlin Wall; the dive bombing German plane; several things we couldn't take pictures of; some that Emily has on her Facebook of me; and that parachuting dog and his testicles are all courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. Impressive building and great exhibits, including a Holocaust display that rivals DC's....and takes as much time. Very interesting from a nationalistic perspective though: The British account definitely puts an emphasis on how helpful the government and citizens were as soon as they found out the significance of what was going on, and how they responded quicker than other countries. In the US, there's a bit of a play of 'well, we didn't know what was going on, so we couldn't help.' Here, there's definitely a little more pride.

2. Post museum, we ended up heading down to the river, Big Ben, and a little pub to blow some time. Here's how small London is: in a scene that would be repeated several times the rest of the night, we ran into a girl who went to college with an ex-track teammate of mine who brought Emily to the prom....later it was a guy (I gaurantee his name was Sully or O'Doyle) who went to school with one of our friend's friends....there are more Boston area people here than in Worcester, I swear.

3. Anyway, that charming dude with Guinness on his nose: Insane dude named Alex from Liverpool, in town with his friends...(and after one day, I definitely fit in better). Aside from trying to convince us(Emily, Jamie Salo, and me) that he was joining the Royal Navy while he complained about being seasick from the Thames river ride. Aside from the fact that he was in rough shape after snorting chile powder the night before...and aside from the 30 minute conversation our group had with his about synonyms for 'drunk' ('Cocked' was his cue to put on the full flamboyantly gay Liverpool routine) ....aside from all of that, he was CONVINCED he was marrying Emily, and really didn't have too many limits as the night went on in that regard. Kept calling me brother, followed Emily and I and Jamie(who was with us) as we ran through Liverpool Station trying to lose them; tried getting a table at the 2hour wait restaurant we had reservations at with Dan(seen buying booze around the corner) and generally caused mayhem wherever we went.(He was debating pissing on a ticket machine at the Underground Station when his group couldn't figure out how to work it.) There was no room at the restaurant, so Jamie took one for the team, and brought them out to a pub. We later found out that Alex was convinced 9-11 didn't happen, and that he had the name of his ex-fiance tattooed on his calf. This part of the night will be a bigger story by itself when I have more time, but Jamie: I owe you.

4. The rest of the night (after the best Pakistani food ever) was spent at the uber-American Sports Cafe (although I've never seen cutoff polo shirts like the waitresses wore) where I watched March Madness on a TV positioned under a Patriots helmet.

A quick aside: In the Queen Mum's good name, what the hell is with girls wearing bizarrely colored and fitting short shorts with classy tops? I'm no fashionista, but it was 0 damn Celsius last night, and I felt like I was at a mix of teen night at Sh-booms and a Madonna concert circa 1985.

5. Today was a quick trip to the British museum, where I absolutely nerded out to the Rosetta Stone and a New World exhibit. Tonight was dinner with Phil Hale (an amazing artist you should look up) across town in Hackney. Real happy I got to get out of the touristy center and into the working class, post industrial areas a bit, although I would have liked more time for photos. Phil, Rachel, and the kids were great...gave me some great non-touristy markets to try out this week for cheap junk, antiques, etc....

Slang of the weekend goes to the girls on the bus who called the fare jumper an "Absolute twat-face."

Saturday, 17 March 2007

London is Burning


I didn't think I was actually getting out of Boston. After making it through security at Logan (with my own private bag search!) we sat on the plane at the gate for about 75 minutes while they looked for a 'water leak' on board. Scruffy mechanics in neon yellow vests racing up and down the aisles and banging around in the hold below us while snow started to fall outside. We got out as it got heavy...I think we were one of the last out.

Landing in London at night is incredible. Boston has the water, Caracas has that mountain lit up by shantytowns, but flying over the London sprawl, with the Thames snaking through the middle was just awesome. The pilots took us around the city, and back over...was just awesome.

Heathrow itself was fine, minus the mile walk to immigration. It was actually a bit bizarre...all the signs were for Boston or New York based companies; I hadn't heard a cheeky accent yet, and I could have easily been back in the US (except for the fact that all the signs were very polite: "Please be aware you are now entering an area of heightened security.")

True to Zoback form, my sister and almost-Zoback cousin gave me a huge full form tackle in the middle of the airport, as everyone else waited patiently behind barriers for their parties. Yeah, we made a scene. And yes, I got in on the wrong side of the car at the airport.

Anyway, the rest of the night was great. I got a quick driveby tour of London: Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, Big Ben, London Eye, Trafalgar Square, etc. We hit up a pub by Dan's place for a quick celebratory beer. I got the only thing I didn't recognize: it ended up being Czech, not British, but damn did it taste good.

(As an aside, we passed one pub that looked like an absolute imitation of a Boston version of a London pub. Who the hell is copying who?!?!?!?!?!)

EmZ and I are going to the Imperial War Museum today, followed up by what is supposed to be an incredible Indian dinner with Dan. It's St. Patty's Day, so we'll see how that plays into everything...I'm sure some Irish bar will distract us on the way.