Friday, July 10, 2009

How we Managed to Become Stranded in England

June 28, 2009

After church, we went to a favorite eatery to have bougatsa one more time before leaving Greece. Then we hurried home to do all those last-minute things that always seem to crop up no matter how carefully you think you have planned things. Manolis came over with a gift to us, a coffee-table book we will cherish. Christos came, too, to drive us to the airport.

At the airport we had lunch – fortunately, as you shall see.

The Greek woman sitting next to us in the plane had obviously never flown before. She didn’t know how to work the seatbelt; she had two matching ends, one of them mine. She also didn’t know what to do with the things left on her tray after the drinks had been served. She sat in the window seat, but as there wasn’t much to see most of the time, she spent most of her time with her head in her hands, eyes shut, as if frightened. We tried to be extra casual. I took out my crochet hook and a ball of yarn and began a scarf.

When we landed at Gatwick, it was just after 4:00 in the afternoon, their time, 6:00 our (Greek) time. We waited until almost everyone else was off the plane before we stood up, just because we dislike the crush and pushing. Our waiting was fortunate, because it turned out our fellow passenger needed a wheelchair, and someone sent for one of those shuttle vehicles to transport her, the kind you always hear beeping at you when you are in an airport concourse or terminal. The driver, from India, motioned us aboard his little train together with our fellow passenger. He not only took us where we needed to be, saving us from having to discover this information ourselves, he also gathered up our passports and took them to the customs official, and got us all through without our having to move from our seats. Then he brought us to baggage reclaim, to the correct carousel. He was so nice, meanwhile, that Demetrios gave him all the English money he had, one pound.

The first thing we did, after retrieving our bags, was go to the train ticket window. The man there took our credit card and issued the tickets and handed us a long list of connections we had to make to get to our destination, the little village of Ormskirk, Lancashire. I think, counting the underground trains, there were 6 all together. We could leave in an hour, he said. Well, actually, if we hurried, we might catch the train about to leave now.

We hurried and we made it. The price of our haste, which we ignored, was of course that we now had no English money at all. (No, England is not on the Euro, despite being an EU nation. It retains the Pound Sterling.) We also didn’t have a chance to relieve our full bladders or our empty stomachs. Never mind, I said, the main thing for now was to get where we were going, and we’d worry about the rest later. Wrong!

We had a grand tour of London – from below! We never saw a thing above ground. Gatwick Express to Victoria Station, another subway train to Euston Station, then to the town of Crewe, then to Liverpool’s Lime Street Station, where we finally had a chance, before catching the next two trains, to find a toilet. Unfortunately, it cost 30 pence to get into the lavatories, and we didn’t have it.

Time to get some money. Quick, find an ATM. Ah, there it is. Read instructions, insert credit card. Request rejected. Try again. Rejected again. Try another card. Still no go. Try another. No.

Try mine. Oops. My purse; where’s my purse? I left it on the train! I can’t believe this! First I had a purse stolen in Greece, which fortunately did not have my passport in it, and now I’ve lost this one, which does! I ran to the train, still at the platform. I tried the doors; they were locked. I pounded on the doors, I cried out in panicky desperation: “Help! Let me in!”

A uniformed man approached me. “My purse is on that train!” I shouted toward him. “My passport is in that purse, and the PURSE IS INSIDE THE TRAIN!”

“No, it is not,” he replied.

I stared at him blankly, dumbly.

He switched on his walkie-talkie and spoke into it: “The lady has showed up. I’m bringing her now.”

Yes, the authorities had already completed their walk-through of the train, which had reached the end of its line, and my purse was waiting for me in their office a few yards away. All I had to do was sign the receipt. I nearly cried. And I am still in awe of this British efficiency! We thanked them again and again.

This escapade, however, had cost us time, so now we had to rush to catch the next connection, the one to Liverpool’s Central Station, and the one after that, to little Ormskirk.

For Demetrios, that last leg, especially, was a sentimental journey. “When I first came here, fresh out of medical school,” he said, “I took this same route, this same sequence of trains.” He had a more or less running commentary on all the little places we passed, and where we stopped.

It was after 10:00, local time, when we finally disembarked in Ormskirk. We had left Greece 12 hours before.

Fortunately, there were half a dozen taxis waiting. “This way!” I said to Demetrios.

We had gone about three steps when we remembered we hadn’t a single cent of English money with which to pay a cabbie. Or a hotel. Or a restaurant.

Oh, well, perhaps the hotel was in walking distance; most of Ormskirk is, if you’re in shape. We pretty much are, a fact I blame mostly upon Sylvia. And maybe the hotel would accept our credit cards, just maybe, even though the machines in Liverpool wouldn’t. We must enquire of the cab drivers.

“The Beaufort Hotel?” one asked. “That old place closed down a month ago. Just overnight, without telling anybody. And they had weddings booked, and conferences and all.”

I remembered, with sinking heart, trying for the past day or so to telephone them to reconfirm our reservations, and getting a recording. But I had put that down to the difficulties of making any international call from Greece.

Now we were penniless in a foreign country, late on a Sunday night, our stomachs growling and our bladders screaming at us, and with nowhere to go, no hotel; and not only had we no money, but no way of getting any, either, before morning.

The cab driver conferred with one of his “mates.” The others gathered around, curious to see what would become of the stranded Americans. “You want to be in the Prince Albert,” they all agreed. They called that hotel with a cell phone. No vacancies.

The cabbies called around for us to other places, even asking their friends if they knew a place. Finally they located the Premier Inn in the neighboring town of Southport. It had a vacancy for us.

In a neighboring town, right. No way to walk there at all, even if we didn't have three heavy suitcases.

“Ah’ll tayke ya,” one of them finally said. So he did, and the ride was about 15 or 20 minutes long.

“So now how can I pay you? What can I do?” asked Demetrios.

“Well, it’s 14 pounds,” said the man. “So if you have it in Euros that’ll be foine.” Demetrios gave him a 20-Euro note. “Keep it,” he said.

“Naw, look, I’ll give ya some choinge so you’ll have some pounds ta play with.” And he handed us five pounds.

Now, next problem: would the hotel accept our credit card?

“Your card doesn’t have the chip,” said the nice lady behind the counter. Credit cards in the UK all have some sort of a chip on them, without which they don’t work. That was “absolutely without doubt” why our cards had been rejected by the ATMs. However, she could try entering the information manually – yes! Success.

Now we had a room, with comfortable bed, television, and very importantly, a bathroom. With not just a shower, but also a large tub. We parked our luggage and went back to the lobby to tell the lady how pleased we were with our room.

And where should we eat, we asked?

She frowned. It was now after eleven o’clock and everything would be closed. It’s not like Greece, where things are just getting into full swing by 11:00.

Nevertheless, we hadn’t eaten in, by now, more than 14 hours, so hunger drove us to walk around outside to see what there was. Italian restaurants, Mexican, pub, all closed. But, across the parking lot, a MacDonalds! We walked over there. It was closed, too, but the drive-through was still open, hooray! We stopped in front of the menu board and discovered that with our precious five pounds, we could afford two Happy Meals. The advantage of a Happy Meal is that it comes with a drink, too. And a toy, of course.

Up to the drive-through window. I joked with the young man there, “May we walk through your drive-through?”

“No, afraid not. Can’t allow it.”

“Really? Are you serious?”

“Health and safety reasons.”

They don’t want us to be run over by a car? They are afraid we might have guns?

There was nothing to do but accept that we weren’t going to eat until breakfast tomorrow. Well, we said, walking back to our room, millions of people go to bed hungry. Tonight we’re going to join their ranks. So what? We can cope for one night with what they endure night after night.

But it was still a pathetic, helpless, terrible feeling, emotionally.

“Did you get something at MacDonalds?” asked a voice near us.

We turned and saw the receptionist, who by now was off duty and was walking toward her car to go home.

We said no, because they wouldn’t allow us to walk through the drive-through.

“Oh, that’s ridiculous!” she said. “Come, get in my car and I’ll drive you through. My name’s Jacqui, by the way.” She’s off duty, mind you, and alone, offering to take two strangers in her car, foreigners, at that.

We accepted, most gratefully. Jacqui ordered our Happy Meals for us and even held out her own money, but at least we didn’t have to take that. We used our own five pounds.

We are overwhelmed by the extraordinary kindness of people here. We said many prayers of thanks.

And a Happy Meal never tasted so good!


Dixie said...

What an adventure! But quite frightening to me. I am afraid my pea sized bladder would have let me down long before the end of the story.

Glad you came out of it so well.

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

Oh my, you had quite an eventful start to your trip to the UK.
I hope it continued to improve .........

123 said...

I love Lime Street Station. Don't know why other than that it is familiar. I love the cut rock the tracks run through on the way in and out, and the open air expanse of it inside. It's a lot nicer now than it was in the 80s and 90s. I'm pretty sure I've been to or through Ormskirk, though it's possible I've just been hearing the name my whole life. Definitely been to Southport, which must have been a nice place to stay for you and D.

You didn't get to the Wirral to visit the new Orthodox church of St. Elizabeth and _________ (whatever the saint's name it was dedicated to as an Anglican church). It's ROCOR and had been meeting in the priest's home in Birkenhead, I believe. The Greek church in Toxteth in Liverpool is a beautiful recreation of a church in Istanbul. When I was there I noticed the windows way up high were broken and birds were flying in and out during the service. (Incidentally, Orthros didn't start until like 11am and most people still didn't show up until 2 hours later or more - Greek time is Greek time no matter when something starts, I guess. It was funny to hear Scouse/Greek accents or Greek then switching over to Scouse).

Welcome home.

elizabeth said...

Wow. That is quite the adventure!! I love hearing your narrations of them, even though it was a difficult day for you!

Weekend Fisher said...

What a rough time! Glad it worked out in the end. Thank God for the kindness of strangers.