Monday, November 19, 2007

When Will You Kids Learn That There's Semen On Everything?

Was that ever a good weekend, or what? Yes, I have returned from my extended weekend in England with the family, and it was everything I had hoped. Fun family times, clean air, good food and drink, and most importantly - Christmas!

On Wednesday, I got up, packed, and brought my duffel bag to class, where I had to take a midterm before I left. I thought security would have a problem with my big duffel bag coming through the metal detectors, but all they did was ask, "What in that?" and when I said, "Clothes," they just let me right in. Perfect, now I can plant all the bombs I brought to school! Anyway, I obviously aced the midterm (just like last time, all the Egyptians had to re-do their tests because none of them could grasp the incredibly difficult concept of using pencil rather than pen on Scantron tests).

I then said goodbye to Allyson, and hopped in a cab for the airport, enjoying my last thirty minutes during the drive of breathing 90% fumes and 10% oxygen. I had a bit of an Amazing Race moment - there are two totally separate airports that serve Cairo - Airport 1 is mostly domestic but with some international, and Airport 2 is mostly international but with some domestic. Confusing, right? Now, the obvious choice would be to go to Airport 2, since it's mostly international and chances are the flight to London would be leaving from there. But when the cab driver asked, "Which airport?" I went with my gut feeling and risked it all with Airport 1. I'll spare you the suspense and tell you that I was correct, which made me feel great all weekend. Especially since when I got to the airport and asked the guy at the information desk where the BMI counters were, he responded with, "Airport 2," but my gut still told me it was at Airport 1, so I walked past him and found the BMI desks on my own. But the fun of Cairo didn't stop there - you have to go through security just to get to the check-in desks, so when I tried to go through, I was forcibly shoved back through the metal detector, and one of the guards took my passport and left me standing there. I watched him talking to about three different BMI agents for nearly five minutes, with me holding up the entire line behind me. Finally, he came back, gave me my passport, and let me through. From this point on, I had a personal escort until I actually got to my gate.

Anyway, I eventually arrived in Heathrow, and set off on my series of three trains to get to the town of Eltham. But since I can't travel without having the most ridiculous things happen (usually through my own fault), I had to go to the bathroom. Terribly. The food on the plane did a number on my digestive system. So for all three trains, I'd arrive at the station telling myself, "This is where we'll find a bathroom," but every time the train was just pulling in, so I'd jump on the train and say, "Okay, at the next station." This continued for nearly two hours. On the final train, I literally thought I was going to shit my pants. I came within seconds of biting off my coke nail. That's how bad it was. I even
thought about taking the little emergency escape hammer, shattering the window, sticking my ass out, and just going out the side of the train. But I reached Eltham station, and ran down to find a bathroom. Of course, the first bathrooms I encountered had massive padlocks on them, and the second ones were locked as well. My dad had also told me there would be cabs out front of the station, but there was nothing. I was seriously panicking at this moment. I asked some dude sitting behind a window if there were any bathrooms, and I think he said no, but I wasn't really listening. So I just asked for a cab, and he typed something into his computer, and a cab magically appeared from god knows where. It was awesome. I got in the cab, rode for ten excruciating minutes to the hotel, where luckily my parents were standing outside of, about to get into the car and drive to find me. I was extremely rude and gave them half-assed hugs, told them to pay for my cab, and ran into the hotel, right past Nikki and Sara, and into the bathroom. Once my business was finished, I managed to greet the family properly, but the damage had already been done. We will never be a family ever again.

That night was most excellent. They were all exhausted and went almost immediately to sleep, and even though I thought I wasn't too tired, I passed out pretty quickly after hitting my (outrageously comfortable) bed. I spent about five minutes trying to stifle my hysterical laughs over how absolutely silent it was out there. No one was shouting, no cars were honking, and there literally was not a sound to be heard, as hard as my ears were trying to find something. After three months of non-stop noise, this was an incredible shock to my system, and I actually got a headache from the lack of noise. It was wonderful.

This is what the rental company tried to saddle five of us and our luggage with. Seriously.

The next morning, we took off in our little rental van for the town of Bath, to see a university for Sara. By this point, she had already pretty much given up on the idea of going to school in England, instead focusing on Seattle, but my dad needed to trick himself into thinking all the money he spent on this trip had a point, so we went to all the previously planned schools, no matter how much everyone begged to skip them. The drive was pretty fun, since the English countryside is remarkably beautiful when it's all frosted over in the morning, and since my dad was still trying to figure out how to drive on the wrong side of the road. Since I hadn't eaten anything since that awful BMI meal (now I know where they got the first two letters of the airline's name), we stopped for breakfast at a... Costa. Wonderful. We eat lunch at Costa about three times a week back in Cairo. But they had different kinds of sandwiches than stupid Egypt, and I ended up eating half of my mom's turkey, gravy, and cranberry sauce monstrosity, which was kind of disgusting, but that's all the Thanksgiving I'll be getting this year, so I made myself enjoy it.

We got to Bath with only a little difficulty - I told my dad to make one stupid wrong turn, and all of the sudden I was labeled as the family idiot who can't be trusted with the maps anymore - and I think all of us fell in love with the town. It was not too small, not too old, not too modern, and for me at least it was the first time I really felt like it was the beginning of the Christmas season, which everyone knows is the best time of year. The college was very nice, too. I don't really remember any of it, but who cares, right? The point is, it's Sara's number one choice in England, which is excellent.

We then did some touristy things, like seeing the church were the first king of all of England was crowned, and the nearby Roman baths. My family was amazed at all of it, but I'm going to have to be a snob and say that it can't compare to the stuff I saw in Lebanon. It all felt really touristy and fake. The baths were filled with hot water, which made it look more like it would have back when they were in use, but also made it all look even faker. Plus they had an actor in a toga shuffling in a neverending circle around the main bath, occasionally stopping to ask Minerva for blessings on "Kevin and Erin from Australia," and other such tourists. He didn't ask for any blessings for us, but I think that's because we were snickering at him the whole time.

After that, we just embraced our O'Neill side and went from pub to pub. I was ecstatic when we got nachos at one pub, and even though they were simply Doritos covered in cheese, thrown in the microwave for 15 seconds, and covered in really crappy salsa, guacamole, and sour cream, I could not stop talking about how amazing the nachos were. Apparently Cairo isn't known for its Mexican. Neither is England, but at least they make an effort. When we returned to the hotel that night, we had a conversation about the blankets in the hotel, which ended with my mom's now-famous titular line to this post.

The next morning we got out of Bath much more easily than we got in, and headed to Winchester to see the university there. On the way, we stopped at Stonehenge, which was pretty cool. It's literally on the side of a highway, and just comes up out of nowhere. You can no longer actually go up and touch it, and they kept us at a pretty far distance the whole time, but it was still really cool to see that place. Unfortunately, Egypt has ruined me forever, because once I heard it was a mere 6000 years old, I just scoffed and lost interest in it. Okay, that was a joke. It was actually amazing to see one of the only monuments in the world that comes anywhere close to the age of the pyramids. Perhaps my favorite part of the whole thing was all the made-up information they provided us with, since no one really knows a thing about who built it, why they did it, or what purpose it served. But that didn't stop them from providing us with a painted reenactment of the construction of Stonehenge, complete with honest-to-god cavemen in loin cloths. I was shocked they didn't include the dinosaurs they harnessed to haul the stones, a la the Flinstones.

The University of Winchester was lame. The town was incredibly small and boring, and the same went for the school. Plus all the buildings were made in this awful modernist style that just looked horrible next to all these old houses. Smell ya later, Winchester.

We returned to London and, of course, pub crawled. Eventually Nikki and I talked the family into going to a Japanese restaurant so I could get my sushi fix, and even though they griped about having to go there, they all admitted how amazing the food was. Next summer: Gottleib Family Japanese Road Trip!

That night, Katie and Laura planned on taking Nikki and I out with some of their friends, so Katie arranged that we would meet at 9:15 in front of the theater for the Queen musical. Insert gay joke here. But Nikki only started getting ready at 9, so out of fear that we'd be late, I sent Katie a text message apologizing in advance for being late. But then we only got there two minutes late, and Katie was nowhere to be found. So we waited. For half an hour. At that point, we kind of suspected they had already gone somewhere since I said I'd be late, but I didn't want to text her and nag her if she was just running even later than we were. So I didn't. We stood there freezing for another fifteen minutes, and I finally gave in and texted Katie, who, it turns out, was literally around the corner in a bar with everyone. She apologized a million times for a mistake that was totally my fault, but then made sure to make fun of me all night for it. Which I wasn't too upset about, because the more time she spent retelling the story of me standing and freezing while waiting for her, the less time she would spend retelling the story of when I screamed out for my mom while I was sleeping in Kyoto.

The entire night was way too much fun. It was definitely one of my favorite moments of study abroad, getting to see Katie. She kept saying, "I can't believe you're here!" throughout the night, and we both kept remarking on how crazy it is that she's from England, I'm from the United States, we met in Japan, and I'm visiting her in London while I'm going to school in Cairo. It just didn't seem real. The night was both a testament to how well we get along together and to how much traveling makes you form incredibly close friendships in such a short amount of time. I mean, we had only ever seen each other for five days out of our entire lives, but we felt like old friends. I can't even imagine what it's going to be like separating from my friends in Cairo for a while and then getting back together with them later in life. I think we all may need to live together forever like those stupid Friends.

Anyway, we went to various bars in the thankfully less touristy areas, and had a blast. All of Katie's friends were so much fun, so hopefully they'll be able to come to the States eventually. We had to meet up with Laura who was out with her "new fancy man," and since Laura is the worst at getting around EVER, it took forever to find where she was. At one point, she texted to Katie, "Just ask someone where The Big Chill is. Preferably a girl." But it's for things like that that we love Laura, so it was all okay. Of course, she did focus a little too much on her fancy man, when she had claimed she was coming to London to see Katie and I, but he was a very nice guy, so I can't fault her.

When Nikki and I returned around 3 AM, I used my cell phone to try to see my way through the dark to my bed, and since my mom is like a mental patient when she's sleeping, she saw the light and, still half-asleep, started muttering, "Why do you have a thing like that? It's hot in here. Oh, I thought you had a miner's hat. Take your miner's hat and see how how it is in here." The three of us then lay in the dark laughing for several minutes, much to Sara's annoyance.

For our last day in England, Nikki and I just wandered the city for a bit while the family went to see one final university. We then met up and got some incredible food in a pub that opened under Elizabeth I's (for those of you confused by numbers, that would be Cate Blanchett, not Helen Mirren) reign. It was all made by this feisty old woman - presumably the pub has been in her family since it opened, but we were all too intimidated to ask her - who managed to cook all the food in the two microwaves behind the bar while simultaneously yelling at all the slow helpers who worked there. It was very entertaining.

We then set off to see some strange collections. First was this museum that contained all sorts of horrible things collected by some mad scientist or something. The place was two floors, and absolutely packed with jars of freaks of nature, thousands of dissected body parts, examples of surgeries gone wrong or just disgusting surgeries gone right, and some horrible deformities. There was the enlarged skull of some poor bastard, which looked about as heavy as my entire body, and the skeleton of some "Irish Giant", who was over seven feet tall. It was so cool at first, but after seeing hundreds of twisted spines and faces ravaged by syphilis, we all left feeling pretty queasy. After that, we went to the British Library to see their collection of some rare crap, which was amazing. Unfortunately, we got there only twenty minutes before it closed, so we couldn't spend too much time admiring everything they had, which included: Shakespeare's first folio, the original handwritten drafts of Alice in Wonderland and Jane Eyre, three of the only surviving copies of the Magna Carta, original works by Mozart, Wagner and Bach, ancient Buddhist texts, Sir Thomas More's final letter to Henry VIII in which he pleads for his life, and an awesome section that had the original handwritten verses to many Beatles songs like Hard Day's Night and Michelle. On one of them, John had drawn a hilarious caricature of himself, and on the bottom of another, he had pretended to grade it like a teacher and wrote, "3/10. See me." Very cool stuff, but I don't remember any of it since we were rushed out of there so quickly.

Our last night as a family until late December, Nikki decided to blow us off and go see the Lord of the Rings musical. Which I'm sure was awesome. We just ate some awesome Italian food (the dessert was one of the best desserts of all time) and didn't do anything too exciting.

The next morning, I got up before everyone, packed, said goodbye, and left at 6 to catch the Tube to Heathrow. Of course it was a Sunday, and the Tube wouldn't open until seven. So i went back up to the room, and we tried to get me a cab to Paddington so I could take a train there, but by the time it all was being finalized, it was almost seven, so I just went back up to the room and waited. I then said goodbye for the third time in one hour, and went down to catch the first train to Heathrow. As I waited, I was speaking Spanish to this guy from Bolivia, and as I was saying goodbye to him, who do I see but my dad, running down the escalators! He brought me the printout of my flight confirmation, and I had to say goodbye for a fourth time. These people just do NOT want me to go.

There were some delays along the way and some added stops to make up for other train lines that weren't running, so we got to Heathrow about fifteen minutes late, leaving me only an hour to get to my plane before it took off. There wasn't a line at the self-check-in desks, but there was a nearly hour-long line for the desks where we check our baggage. Somehow I got incredibly lucky, because they opened a second row of desks, and an employee grabbed me and started the second line with me in front. So I checked in within about five minutes. It was amazing. Security was a breeze, too, so I made it to the gate with nearly half an hour to spare, which enabled me to watch the BBC's morning-after recap of last night's major soccer events. (For those of you not keeping up, Israel barely beat Russia, keeping England in the running. It was very exciting.)

The plane ride was semi-uneventful, except the way-too-attractive British couple next to me made me stand up about every half hour so one of them could get out to go to the bathroom. Plus we were in the second-to-last row, and there was a line for the bathrooms literally the entire five hours. So I constantly had someone standing directly next to me, and when someone would come out of the bathroom and have to squeeze by, the person would shove either their ass or genitals in my face to try to let the other person past. It was really miserable. About an hour into the flight, as well, we must have hit an air pocket, which caused an enormous jolt that actually made some people fly up to the ceiling. Just watch the crash footage from the first episode of Lost, and it was exactly like that, minus the plane splitting in half. It actually stunned the plane into a panicked silence for a couple minutes. But, apparently, we survived.

So now I'm back in Cairo for another 24 hours or so, before I take off again for Istanbul. If I had it my way, I'd be leaving now. Cairo just seems like hell compared to England, and I would really like to get back to real civilization, which I hear Istanbul has. But it's worse for poor Beckett, who came back on Friday and more or less wants to go back to Wisconsin. He said it was awful getting readjusted to Egypt. That's alright, we're only here for four weeks from today, and you bet I'm going to enjoy every minute. Because once I get home and Christmas is over, I'm going to be dying to get back to the excitement of Egypt. But that's too much to think about right now. I suppose I should go to class now, huh? (Due to sleeping through my first class and other classes being canceled, I only have one class to go to today. Which means by the time I get back from Istanbul, I will have only been to one class in two weeks. I don't know why I say I don't like AUC - it's the best school ever!)

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