| We had to be at the station shortly after 9 Thursday morning to catch our train to Brussels that would connect us with the Eurostar to London. Eurostar is to intercity rail what the Concorde is to air travel: fast and expensive. You can get to London Waterloo Station from either Brussels or Paris in about three hours. Once the Brits finish building the high-speed track on their side of the Channel Tunnel (The Chunnel, as they call it here), another half hour will be shaved from the travel time. Our rail passes entitled us to a discount, but we still had to fork over nearly $100 in reservation fees and supplemental fares to get us both onto the train.
The advertising for Eurostar talks a lot about how their train is faster downtown-to-downtown than flying, and they're right. But when they suggest riding Eurostar to avoid the "airport experience," they don't tell you that Eurostar brings the airport experience to the train station. Run your bags through x-ray machines, walk through metal detectors, show your passport a few times, and eventually you're deemed worthy of a seat in the departure lounge. The train is waiting on the platform, but isn't being boarded until about five minutes before departure. So even though we were told to be at the station a half-hour early, we got to wait in the departure lounge for 20 minutes. Then we got to go through still more security checkpoints on our way to the train.
Other than the fact that it was fast (about 180 mph), the Eurostar was nothing special. The Channel crossing took about 20 minutes, but it didn't seem that long. Our ears popped a bit as we descended into the bowels of the Earth, and a funky electrical smell lingered in the bottom of the tunnel, but it was no different than riding the BART between San Francisco and Oakland or any train going between New York City and New Jersey ... the train moved faster through the dark tunnel, and it took a bit longer to get to the other side. Once we got to London, we got to answer questions from a smiling old gentleman at Passport Control, who eventually stamped our passports and let us back into the country.
The money changer traded our leftover 1000 Belgian francs for about 14 pounds, then the cash machine gave us 100 more pounds. After recharging our caffeine levels, we had enough change to call Jen & Gabe and let them know we were close. The machines that sold tube tickets accepted cash or credit cards, and they had a touch-screen interface that was easy to figure out. (It helped that all of the instructions were in English, a perk we'd grown to appreciate.) We descended into the labyrinth of the London Underground system without ever having risen to the surface to see the Waterloo Station we'd seen on our first arrival in London.
We got to the Bethnal Green station a short time later, and had to make one more phone call to summon our ride. We had to try four phone boxes in the neighborhood before finding one that worked. Once we made the call we had to stand under a railroad bridge and wait. Ten minutes seems like a long time when you're standing still with a huge load strapped to your back. Gabe showed up in an old Austin Mini, which he described as England's answer to the Volkswagen Bug. We managed to get both of our bodies and packs into the tiny thing. It was cramped, but we only had to go about a mile.
When we got to Jen & Gabe's, the four of us had a lot to talk about. Jen wanted to be briefed on her brother's Thanksgiving dinner. We were carrying the wishbone from that dinner's turkey, which we delivered to Jen on Bobber's behalf. We carried on about the wonderful discoveries we are all making as Americans in Europe, and the ways our country looks different when you're on the outside looking in. As afternoon drifted toward evening the topic of conversation turned towards food. Jen pointed out that this was our last night in Europe, and that we might want to do something special. Dinner at a nearby Chinese noodle place sounded special enough for us.
It took about 15 minutes to get there on an old "double-decker" London bus. We all sat in the front of the upper level and watched the neighborhood pass by below us. The bus has a driver and a conductor. After you board the bus and find a seat, the conductor will catch up with you to collect your fare (usually 70p). Hang on tight in the upper level, because when the bus turns hard or hits a bump, the swaying is much more pronounced.
Once we were well fed and back at the apartment we had to repack for the airplane trip. That meant seperating the stuff that needed to be carried with us from the stuff that could ride with checked luggage. Since we last flew in late September, 40 rolls of film and 25 hours of video tape have been added to our carry-on load. Once our in-flight and immediate post-flight necessities were added to the stuff that's too precious to trust in checked baggage, we had to pack it all in a way that would enable the carry-on bag to travel inside of the main pack to the airport.
Eating Chinese noodles and repacking. THAT'S how we spent (what we thought was) our last night in Europe.