Visiting the UK

So I’m visiting the UK for a couple of weeks, after nearly 18 months away (a long time not to see people, but there are reasons). It’s been interesting so far, fun, and great to see family and friends (with more still to go), but also being here has reminded me that I made the right choice in leaving.

I hadn’t been to the UK in 18 months. That’s quite a while not to visit, but last year wasn’t a good year for me personally. Actually, last year was a very unpleasantly horrible year (mostly over a girl, who really got to me, probably because I’d also moved country the year before and just had a lot of “stuff” to deal with) and I mostly spent my vacation time distracting myself in California. Cost came into it too – it’s much more expensive to randomly fly to the UK these days (a trip costs many times what a vacation in California will set you back), though that doesn’t really justify not being here for Christmas or something. I’m sorry I didn’t do that, but it wasn’t a good time for me at all. It really wasn’t. I will be trying to visit a bit more often in the future – I certainly don’t want to go more than a year between visits, with a preference for 6-8 months or something along those lines.

The flight over was annoying from the outset. Some passenger was complaining about their seat and the cabin crew (who seemed to all have strong, annoying Birmingham accents) didn’t know how to deal with it. In the end, to get some peace, I got up and volunteered to move, which seemed to placate the situation and calm the person down, although it turned out to be unnecessary. As I remember from previous experiences, Virgin are slightly less annoying than BA, but they still like to talk way too much – I don’t care that I’m on a plane, I know this. I don’t need 30 minutes of instruction on using the seat-back TV (that I can’t skip). And I most certainly don’t want constant frivolous announcements – learn something from United Airlines, especially about the customer service and channel 9 ATC (Air Traffic Control). If I want to know what’s going on on a United flight, I just tune in and listen to what the captain is hearing.

Landing in the UK, I played “get the heck out of Heathrow”, a fun game for the whole family. Anyone can play, but not everyone can succeed. It requires patience and a lot of running through maze-like corridors, especially once you get out and yet are still far from the “central” bus terminal. Immigration were surprising this time around though, since they didn’t seem to be discriminating too much against racial minorities in the way that I usually observe them treating British passport holders (seriously, watch for the way they’ll pull Indian families aside sometime, it’s sickeningly disgusting, repulsively nasty, and so forth). I nearly bought a coffee, but I just couldn’t bring myself to pay more than $4 for a cup of drip (UK: filter) coffee. I tried not to look too much at the road from the bus to Reading as all the cars seemed to be driving on the wrong side of the road…quite disconcerting, especially on lane merging :)

I got to Reading and got a ride with Joe (hadn’t seem him in ages), going straight to the park to pick up Hannah and Oscar. I surprised Hannah by running up to her and the look on her face was priceless. I was especially happy to see my nephew for the first time. He’s nearly 18 months now, and recognized me from the photos. Apparently he’s been saying “Jon, plane!” for a few days. We played in the park, on the swings, and ran around, it was awesome. Then I gave him some picture books I’d brought with me from the Harvard COOP – one on the Pilgrims, and one on Boston (the Pilgrim book unfortunately has slightly misplaced Plymouth, UK, but is otherwise largely accurate). We went and found my parents and did the coffee/food thing before dad drove me into town in his shiny new Prius.

Reading seemed funny to visit again. The town hasn’t changed too much in the last 18 months, but there are now coffeeshops on every corner. The Starbucks density is now quite saddeningly impressive (not quite on a NYC scale, but would rival that of Boston) although their prices are ridiculous (and they don’t have decaf non-espresso coffee, the notion of a refill – free or otherwise – etc.), but the town is otherwise every bit as boring as I remember it to be. They still have the bus stop signs running Linux I helped to work on, lots of the stores are the same, and they have modernized other things, but walking around, I soon found myself missing home. After a while, I was in the US travel section of a bookstore, looking at a book on California, which said it all. Visiting the UK is nice, but I don’t belong here any more. I belong in the New World, not the old.

On Saturday (yesterday), my dad picked my grandmother up from Winchester (which is around an hour away) and we had lunch in Reading, then drove her back to Winchester. It was raining when we arrived, otherwise I’d have taken some pictures of the town – I really quite enjoy the little cobbled streets and the aesthetics of Winchester Cathedral. Maybe I’ll go down again before I leave next week. I’d missed my gran. We keep in touch by phone, letter, online, and so forth, but it’s never quite the same as meeting in person – and it had been too long since I’d seen her on her trip to Boston last fall, as had my visit in general. Dad and I had a drink in a local pub last night, and I was left with a huge pile of change…I don’t miss that. But I did enjoy spending some time with my dad :)

Today, I met my other grandmother (who is in hospital at the moment) and told her about some of my adventures with cows in Arizona. Then I went to the local (State) gym. They couldn’t figure out how to charge me without having a chip on my debit card, so it was free, and not a bad gym either. I amused myself remembering that lockers over here tend to take coins and have removable keys built into them – it’s the little things I find funny. I had to convert the units on all the machines from kph to mph, resulting in an average speed setting of 12.8-13.8kph (I normally run at 7.5mph, bursting to 9 or 10mph for short periods). On the way home, I wanted to stop at the “24 hour” supermarket for some groceries, but it was closed. Silly British Sunday trading legislation inspired by religious nutticism (in the US, we’d call these “blue laws”) is something I definitely don’t miss. What about people who aren’t (Christian) religious? Shouldn’t they be able to work on Sunday afternoon if they’d like to?

This week, I’m going to be in our Farnborough office, and likely spend some time in the evenings on other US-time work. I will be hiking next weekend, but the taking my laptop on the road a bit the week after. So I’ll likely be in Cambridge and London at some point next week.


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