Like all of our flights, the one from Stockholm to London left early. Not as early as the next one we would take, but early enough. We were all up far sooner than we would have liked, packed up and ready to head off. We said our various goodbyes to our Swedish friends, and then Mats drove us to the airport on his way to work, more or less – it was in the same general direction, anyway, even if it was a bit out of his way.
Check-in went remarkably smoothly, all things considered.
Norwegian Air has taken the general 21st-century corporate trend of removing human beings that require wages and benefits from the equation and offloading the remaining labor onto the consumer to heart, so the entire check-in process is fully automated with no input from Norwegian Air personnel at all. Which means, of course, that you go to the banks of computer kiosks and do a whole lot of unpaid work for Norwegian Air, including checking in for your seats, getting your boarding passes, weighing and tagging your bags, and transporting your checked bags to the nearest conveyor belt for transportation to whomever handles that sort of thing deep in the bowels of Arlanda Airport. On the plus side, they do give you two free checked bags rather than the one we were used to (and the none we ended up with on the trip back to the US), and the actual flying experience was one of the nicer ones we had, so that has to count for something.
That automated check-in process also requires you to scan your passport and enter in about a hundred different answers to a hundred and forty different questions (some of the answers you can use more than once), but eventually you’re done and you can go stand in the security line and while away your time staring at the most ridiculous advertisement ever created.
It’s a watch ad, roughly billboard sized, and it hangs from the ceiling right over the line where you can’t miss it. You’ve got a lot of time to kill anyway, there in the security line, so it’s not like you’re not going to read it. I know they have an uphill battle these days, watch companies – seriously, how many people do you know actually wear watches anymore instead of just checking their phones? it’s like advertising for fax machines, really – but you do have to question the thinking behind the ad. It’s in an expensive place and I can’t say it made me want to buy their product.
The left side of the billboard features a Manly Man – a Swedish actor, from what I gather, ruggedly handsome in a way that suggests he could just as easily be scoring goals in the World Cup or downing shots of aquavit with leggy blonde supermodels, possibly at the same time, with his neatly trimmed hair and his goatee that just barely rises above 5 o’clock shadow, his sleeve of tattoos, and his minimalist black t-shirt. He is staring Manfully at the viewer, exuding testosterone in your general direction, and seated on a dark couch that was probably made from the hide of something that once roamed the surface of the planet in vast herds but is now endangered. The watch in question sits on his artfully dangled wrist at almost the exact midpoint of the billboard, providing a pivot point for the viewer’s attention to move from left to right. The right side of the billboard contains a giant picture of the watch – an elegant piece of machinery, granted, for those who like watches – and some text that destroys the entire mood by making any native-born English speaker immediately fall over laughing until their sides hurt.
“Built for people like you, who try to live life extraordinary to the maximum fullest deluxe.”
Say what now?
This is what happens when people who don’t actually speak a language purchase a thesaurus and an internet translation service.
I hope they sell a few watches, though. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
We walked through the giant shopping mall that is apparently a standard part of the experience in any major airport in Europe, and eventually we found a place to sit down and get a second breakfast because we are just freakishly tall hobbits after all. And because we had Swedish crowns that weren’t going to be any good to us once we got on the plane and we might as well get something good out of them. That too.
Fully breakfasted, we made our way to the gate where we hung out with pretty much the entire population of some Islamic country that issues bright red passports (I couldn’t read the Arabic) whose flight shared a gate with ours, until it was time to board. It’s interesting listening to conversations in a language that is so different from your own. As with our Riga experience, we boarded the plane from the tarmac – walking down the stairs and across to the plane, and then back up the stairs to get into the plane, though this time they had some of us board through the rear doors which was a new experience on me. It made the boarding process a whole lot faster, to be honest, and I’m not sure why they don’t do that for every flight. We did the same thing in reverse when we landed at London Gatwick, and again it was nice how quickly it all went.
The UK is not part of the Schengen Area so we had to go through Passport Control, which meant we got our passports stamped, much to Lauren’s satisfaction. I found an ATM that would give me pounds, and then we went to pick up our rental car.
Because we were going to be driving for this leg of the trip. I can’t say I was happy about this fact – I remember the rather stern warnings issued for Americans trying to drive on the left in Britain. It’s fine when everything is going well but as soon as anything weird happens all of your instincts take you straight into oncoming traffic. But eventually it became clear that driving was going to happen regardless, and so there we were at the Hertz counter looking to pick up a car.
There are times when you can look at a group of people and know immediately who is in charge, regardless of the formal chain of command. I have no idea what the actual job title was for the woman who helped us, but it was clear that authority flowed downhill from her. She even managed to get us a slightly larger car than the one we were slated for, since we had some luggage with us and we were willing to wait until they cleaned it out. The car turned out to be a small Mercedes and now Kim wants one because even a low-end rental Mercedes is a really nice car. The automatic windshield wipers were pretty snazzy, you had to admit – they sense the rain and just, well, turn on – and the radio was one of those touch-screen things that you could swipe left or right on as if stations were potential dates, except that there are only about five radio stations in Britain so the effect was kind of mitigated.
It is a very strange thing to sit in what you normally consider to be the driver’s seat and realize that there is no steering wheel and no pedals.
We got the car packed, Kim took a few practice spins around the rental car parking lot, and then we were out on the M23 toward London.
This led us to the M25, which in turn led us to the M4, and that led us to a highway rest stop since by that point we were all more than ready for lunch. We parked the car and took a couple of photos of it so we could find it again (what did it look like? what was the license?) and headed in. There were any number of choices but somehow Tabitha, Kim and I ended up at the McDonalds because, well, not sure really. They had a touch-screen ordering system that gave you a world of choices and then utterly failed to let us actually place our order, so we had to repeat most of it to the bored cashier who managed to get most of it into the system, and then we waited approximately half an eon to get it. Lauren went to a different spot on the food court and did better than we did, so let that be a lesson.
But fed and rested, we headed once again back down the M4 toward where Richard and Magnus were waiting for us. Other than a long slowdown around Exit 13 and some moments of comedy when we got off at our exit, sailed through the roundabout at the top, and headed back down the ramp onto the M4 as if we had never gotten off (which meant turning around at the next exit and heading back), we made it to Chipping Sodbury just fine, about three hours after we’d set out from Gatwick.
There was a relaxing interlude of snacking and hanging out with Richard and Magnus, which we enjoyed. Ginny had remained at the cottage that they had rented for the week in Cornwall, and after a bit we piled into the now two available cars and headed that way to join her.
It’s another three hours or so from Chipping Sodbury to St. Endellion, and the sun gradually set on us as we made our way southwest. We stopped at the Exeter services to let Tabitha send an essay to her college that was due that day – she’d written it on her phone and we needed some reliable internet to make sure it got there before the deadline and there is no such thing in Cornwall so it had to be done before we got there. Eventually this meant airdropping the essay to Richard’s phone and having him send it through his cell phone service, but it all got done and she’s at college now so clearly it worked. And we got more snacks while we were there because we could.
We pulled into the Pennant Farm a bit after 9:30 British time, which meant we’d been on the road for well over half a day by then. It’s a lovely place, though – quiet and roomy, and we were happy to be all together the seven of us.
I went out the next morning to see what it looked like in the sunlight, and it was just as nice on the outside. The first picture is the building where we were staying. Our living room area is the set of windows with the white siding in front. If you turn to the right you get the second photo, which reminds you that yes this is an actual farm. There were all sorts of animals there – cows, sheep, geese, and so on – and every so often they’d come trotting by. The last picture is the back of the place.
Richard, Magnus and Ginny are games people and we were more than happy to join them, so that became our nightly ritual while we were there. There was, as noted, no internet service to distract us. There was barely any phone service. If you went out into the driveway about twenty paces from the front door and held your phone up as high as you could reach, sometimes you could connect. Or, rather, Kim, Richard, Ginny, and Magnus could connect, as neither Tabitha nor Lauren nor I had phones that would work in Europe except on wifi, which most certainly did not apply where we were staying. And you know? It was nice. We hung out. We played games. That night it was something called MetaGame, which was as advertised both a game and rather meta and a good time as well.
Eventually we all faded away into our various rooms, and the quiet of the Cornwall countryside wrapped itself around us.