Saturday, July 6, 2013

When in London: Don't Pick the Flowers

"If you can drink it, pour it, rub it or wipe it, put it in a plastic bag.  If your bag requires review, you may be delayed up to 40 minutes…"
- Customs Official at the UK Border, July 2013
 
At the top of the Arc de Triomphe, Paris
 
Qatar is an interesting place to live and there are plenty of things to do.  But most hardworking foreigners occasionally need to "git outta Dodge," especially in the summer when temperatures hover between 105 and 120F.  Since overland travel is only possible through Saudi Arabia (rental cars not allowed, women to travel with a male relative and cover head to toe, even in the car), most of us travel by air.  And, hey, if you're gonna fly, you might as well go somewhere interesting, right?
 
I walked under the x-ray arch as my purse, laptop, suitcase, and baggie loaded with hazardous shampoo slid via conveyor belt into the mouth of the machine and disappeared.  Behind me, the crowd shuffled, people from everywhere removing jackets, isolating lipsticks.  The guard motioned me forward: cleared.  I stood behind Middle Eastern guy, Asian guy, athletic American girl…and waited.
 
Popular expat jaunts include African safaris, cruises to the Greek Islands, treks to Thailand, China, India, Iran, Yemen, Oman.  And the favorites: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Athens, Rome, London, Paris, anywhere in Italy.
 
The conveyor belt stopped.  Bob materialized behind me but no one else came through the x-ray arch.  The clock ticked.  The crowd hummed.  My bag didn't appear.  Middle Eastern guy raised his eyebrows at me.  I raised mine at him.
 
Katie at the Tower of London
 
Bob and I met Katie in London, where she'd spent the last few weeks completing an internship to satisfy requirements for a Master Degree in Dietetics.  While in London we drank wine, dodged speeding bicycles, rode the Big Bus, climbed into a vault to view the Crown Jewels, took the Chunnel to Paris.
 
To exit the UK, passengers place personal items in a large rectangular bucket, which slides via conveyor belt into a machine for review.  Cleared possessions slip out the other side and are retrieved by travelers.  Possessions requiring further evaluation are pressed to the left where they queue behind a clear, plastic screen.
 
The belt squeaked to a start.  Middle Eastern guy's bag slid forward.  Asian guy's bag appeared.  Athletic girl picked up her stuff, put on her jacket and departed.
 
Finally, my possessions popped out of the machine.  Only…the bucket was pressed left -and I was moved to a new line behind a manicured European couple and twin teenage girls from Virginia.
 
We learned: Queen Anne had 14 miscarriages, drank 4 bottles of port a day and was so fat that she was buried in a square coffin.  Piccadilly Circus is not a circus.  The Tower of London is not a tower.  It's illegal to pick flowers in London.  And the famous London Bridge is a "disappointment" (Big Bus Tour Operator):
 
London Bridge: concrete walkway
 
Tower Bridge: leads to the Tower of London
 
Inside the Europeans' bag:  lipsticks, lotions, mascara, shampoo.  Three jars of Nutella.  Jellies stuffed into the toes of shoes.  "She didn't take anything out at all," hissed a twin.  Customs Official confiscated the jellies, allowed the Nutella and helped repack the Europeans' bag.
 
The Chunnel is a train that travels underwater between England and France.  The underwater portion of the trip takes 23 minutes and is like driving through a tunnel:  dark.  The tunnel is not made of glass; there is nothing to see.  Katie and I walked the length of the train, all 18 cars.  There were 4 sleeper rooms, two cafeterias, a cabin for the engineer, and two first class cars where food and drinks were being served.
 
In the twins' bags:  a plastic bottle of lotion, regulation sized.  Lollipop and M&Ms: no problem.
 
In France, natives speak French.  Billboards are in French.  TV shows are in French, even CSI.  Mona Lisa is spelled with TWO "n's": Monna Lisa.  There's an apartment at the top of the Eiffel Tower where the structure's designer and his daughter once entertained guests.  People gather in parks to kiss, drink wine and sing.
 
 
In Paris, we ate chocolate croissants with eggs for breakfast, French fries and eggs for lunch, steak and eggs for dinner.  In London, we enjoyed bacon for breakfast, ham for lunch and pork for dinner.
 
In my bag: newspapers, magazines, and a crossword puzzle book created an organic clump over a suspicious configuration - my cell phone and small metal rosary.
 
"As you can see, on the video the image looks like an explosive," said Customs Official.
 
In London, people walked the street and sipped beer from glass bottles.  In Paris, people drank champagne at bus stops.  We enjoyed mugs of Chardonnay while watching the London production of Billy Elliott.
 
"Are these procedures new?" I asked.  Lipstick, chap stick, makeup, jelly, Nutella: not usually an issue.
 
Nearby, a TV flashed images of the crowds gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square, post coup.

Customs Official wiped the tip of the long, blue wand he'd  just used to check my compact for extraneous substances.  He didn't respond.
 
Most days, Westminster Abbey is open for tours into the evening hours.  On Thursday it closes at 3:30pm.  If you arrive at 3:35pm, you're too late.  But you can still walk around the building:
 
"Just look at those flying buttresses." - Bob, outside Westminster Abbey
 
I repacked my own bag.
 
"They say that if the ravens ever left the Tower of London, the ci'y would fall.  So, optimists that we are, we clipped their wings so they cawnt gi' away."
- Big Bus Tour Guide, London
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