Tuesday, 3 February 2015

UK Times

Luggage, check. Cab, check. Sobbing girlfriend, check. I was good to go then. The journey started with a small bump. On my way to the airport I learnt that my flight was delayed by a good 9 hours - Air India, sigh! I was irritated, hadn't slept well and was hungry, but I wasn't going to let these petty things take away the excitement of the big day. So, a lot of fuss and a few angry passengers later, it was finally time for us to take off. It was going to be a long flight, and I couldn't wait to get off it. Powerless, I sat there patiently, thinking about what lay ahead in store for me. I looked out the window to see a full moon and the skyline lit with a bluish-green tinge. I can't possibly put the beauty of that sight into words. After 10 hours of flight time and two crappy movies on a small screen attached to the back of the seat in front of me, the hostess announced, "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Heathrow International Airport. The local time is 8 pm and the temperature is 8 degrees. We wish you a pleasant stay here. Thank you for flying with us." Incidentally, I was travelling on the 8th day of the month as well. Ah, not that it matters. The announcement was music to my ears. So, I thought to myself - "Finally! London! Woohoo!"

I had gone to the United Kingdom on a business visit, and everything was arranged by my work people. A chauffeur was standing just outside the airport exit. He was holding up a placard that read my name - first time ever that that happened! He walked me to a parked Prius which was to take me to Slough, Berkshire - my home-to-be for the course of three months to follow. It was a Saturday, and it was only by 10 pm that I reached my place of accommodation. I had a two bedroom flat all to myself. There was a sense of chill in the air outside but thankfully the building had heating facility. After dumping my luggage I went outside and got myself some food and a can of beer. Came back, sat myself down on the couch, stretched my legs, popped open the beer can, turned on the television and watched some Sky Sports news while I gobbled up chicken noodles. Nothing much was left for me to do that late in the evening, so I got myself a nice warm shower and sneaked beneath a duvet on a nice fluffy bed. Not bad at all!

My landlord had introduced me to a few people from my workplace who had gone a couple weeks before me and were staying in the same building. Next morning, we went out on a trip to London. Day started off with a visit to the Science Museum but after a while I realized that I didn't want to be in there. So, I headed out with a colleague to explore the nearby places. We had a day travel pass on us, so commutation wasn't a problem. I didn't exactly have a plan on me, but what the hell, what good are plans anyway! Later that day I reached Baker Street and I just had to go check out the Sherlock Holmes Museum - 221b, Baker Street. It was almost too good to be true! By evening, I had found my way to a local pub there. Arsenal were playing Swansea that evening, so the pub had a few football enthusiasts cheering for the London club. I got myself a pint of beer and watched on as Alexis Sanchez raced away in celebration after he had just put Arsenal ahead on away soil. By that time, my other colleagues had come around their museum visit. We met up and decided on visiting a Gentleman's club nearby. It was a fun evening to say the least.

Next up was a dreadful Monday, rather, the dreadful Monday. I had to report at work and it was my first day in a new office. I was a bit nervous, work was to be a bit tedious. My transport to workplace was already arranged and when I walked out of the building, a Mercedes was waiting outside to take me to work. Nice! The week went away in a blur and a very crucial thing for me was to get used to the mannerisms of people around. The first person I met said, "You alright?" and so did a few other I met next. Coming from India, to me it sounded like, "You alright? You look funny, like you are having a fit or something!" I realized after a while that it wasn't really so and people were just saying hello. And well, words like 'Sorry', 'Please' and 'Thank You' were doled out at will and at every imaginable instance. For example, say I go to the coffee vending machine and two people approach at the same time to get coffee. Quite understandably one person has to wait for the other one. The conversation would go somewhat like this:

Person 1: Oh Sorry!
Person 2: Oh I'm sorry!
Person 1: You go first.
Person 2: Oh Thank You!
Person 2: (Before leaving after getting coffee) Thank You!
Person 1: Thank you! You alright?

The polite English way of talking! I discovered that in the UK, it is considered to be very rude to jump queues - not that I would and well if I am standing on escalators, I should stand on the right hand side. Amidst all this, I'd miss my girl who was back in India, but thankfully there was Skype and VOIP calling to save me somewhat from the miserable and gloomy feeling of helplessness and loneliness. I had to co-ordinate my schedule according to her as she was five and a half hours ahead of me. So, by the time I'd be done at work, it'd be time for her to go to bed. We both lost considerable hours from our sleep time. Part of the deal I suppose.

The following Saturday, I went out for a stroll till Langley and explored the places nearby. Lush green parks, people playing football, row houses like they were made up on a board using lego blocks - it felt nice to walk past all this. I met a guy who stayed in my building who was from India as well but he had been in the UK for a good five years now. We became good friends and had a crazy party that night. He had a Canadian friend who had come along and we did some freaky messed up stuff. I'd rather not delve into the details here. It took me the whole of Sunday to recover from the aftereffects.

My workplace was about three and a half miles from my place of stay. Mostly me and my colleagues would walk to-and-fro to work. It was a tiny bit exhausting in the beginning, but then we got used to it and the weather helped too. After all, it couldn't hurt to burn up the calories that we accumulated from drinking all the beer. Sometimes a few angel-like colleagues would offer us lifts in the evening. Up next weekend was the London Eye - touted as a must see attraction for anyone visiting the UK and well, it was amazing indeed. The view from up above - Big Ben, Royal Albert Hall, Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, Oval Ground among others - the three sixty view of London, breathtaking! A trip to the famous Regent Street followed. It was evening by the time we got there and the iconic lights had been turned on and the whole street was thrown into a frenzy. Hefty discounts encouraging people to go on a shopping spree was enough to draw the whole of London and maybe more. We Googled our way to a local pub and got there just in time to watch the match between Arsenal and Manchester United. I, being a fan of the red devils, was a little cornered and surrounded by fans of the local team. To my delight, United got themselves a much needed win that evening. Me and the guy standing next to me were throwing fists in the air while the supporters of the local team cursed away. Next up on agenda was a pub - Night Tales in Shoreditch; it opened only for a short duration during the winters and its reputation was proven by a long queue of people waiting outside wanting to get in. Entry outside the guest list was granted on a one-in-one-out basis and no matter what we did, we just couldn't seem to get in without a long wait. So we thought it'd be best not to wait as it would be late for us to get back to Slough. Too bad, all those hopes turned to ashes. By the time we reached home, our backs and legs were hurting pretty bad from all the walking we had had to do throughout the day. Nevermind, it was all worth it. Oh and a small personal feat that day for me, was to understand and learn to interpret the London underground tube system. Seemed highly incomprehensible at first, but then I slowly got the hang of it. A tip for a first time visitor - a little bit of Googling would help before you jump right in.

I woke up next day to a typically clich├ęd English weather, or so I assumed. I decided to visit the Windsor Palace in Eton, which was considerably near to where I lived. When I got there, the sight was mesmerizing. The Palace is an architectural marvel that has been proudly standing and is in use till date. During my visit, I learnt that there had been a devastating fire in 1992 and it took the mettle of profound craftsmen and skilled sculptors to restore it to the closest possible to as-was. The lush green gardens, the majestic stone walls, the captivating hallways, the magnificent St. George's Chapel, the grandeur of the halls and the sheer elegance of the rooms are inexplicable in words. The Queen Mary's Dolls' House was the most beautiful and biggest doll house I had ever seen. It had fully functional plumbing and electricity for itself. Too much for a doll house I'd say but well that is the Royal way I suppose. Carefully preserved inside the castle, resides a letter of condolence written by Abe Lincoln himself that he had sent to queen Victoria after the demise of Prince Albert. By evening the decorative street lights had been turned on and people flocked the streets in good numbers in and around the Royal Shopping Complex. It started to get a bit cold by that time and I thought it would be best to walk back home. It got dark at half past four, and most of the shops would start closing down by six - back home, that's pretty early for deserted streets. The weekdays that followed went away in a blur. I learnt that a colleague was getting married later that month, and he invited a whole bunch of us office people for a dinner party. It was nice, we went to a place that had Indian food and it was a BYOB. We were done only by midnight and even though most of us were swaying, someone thought up that we should go hit a pub. Brilliant plan I say! So, we called cabs and wandered away to Windsor, to a pub under the arches. I had thought it's probably pretty late and there won't be much happening there at that time but boy, was I wrong! The place was buzzing with people - party animals if I can call them that. More alcohol then, till the point when people could no longer stand without leaning on a wall. We got home only by the wee hours in the morning and sleep seemed like a very good option. And yes, a whole day of hangover followed. And before I realized, it was Monday again. Ugh!

The following week was a bit exciting as our Office Christmas Party was scheduled at the end of the week. Well, a normal routine around there but I was excited as I would have a reason to dress up and wear a suit. The event was at Dorney Lake, which I learnt later, happened to be an Olympic rowing venue. It was a very planned affair - there was wine, good food, some music, some dancing et al., a soothing experience. Next morning I wandered off to London, because you know, it's London. It was at Buckingham Palace where I saw a lot of people dressed up as Santa and doing all kinds of fun stuff. I thought to myself that it probably would be a themed party. Later that day, I went back to Baker Street and saw a huge mass of Santas gathered outside a pub. Well, it couldn't be a coincidence. That is when I learnt from a Police Officer that it was the Santacon! That's a pretty interesting tradition to have - run around dressed up as Santas, drink up as much as you can, create a whole lot of noise, give things away to people, basically - get into the groove of Christmas. Oh and well, there is just something about hot girls dressed up as Santa Claus that catches my eye. A pleasantly surprising evening. I was tired by the night and next day, I wanted to relax. So, I called up my colleague and we went to Southall - the mini India right there in the United Kingdom. When we reached the train station, we saw that the signboards had inscriptions in Gurmukhi. Ah, felt a bit like home. The place was crowded with Asian people and all the eating joints were boasting of the best Indian food. We walked around lazily and tried the food at a few places, before we went back to Slough with our taste buds rejuvenated. Damn the cold!

Weekdays were pretty mundane and weekends would come and pass in a jiffy. We'd often come across a few cab drivers from India/Pakistan. After they learnt that we are from India and that we could speak in Hindi, they'd get a bit chatty. Once a guy told us about how arranged marriage has become a sham and the family or happiness of the people involved didn't matter at all. He had a friend who was nearing sixty, had a daughter aged nineteen and married a girl who was twenty one. Another guy said he was from Punjab, Pakistan. He shared his grief on how their families and relatives had been separated owing to the drawing of a border between India and Pakistan. He rued about the fact that because of a small group of people, Pakistani people had been handed a stereotype and how it was so very difficult to even get a Visa for a visit to India. He said satirically, "We are allowed to come here thousands of miles away, but it is not okay if we want to visit our families in the land which is only a two hour drive away from my home." This statement of his, kind of stuck with me. I still had the conversation playing in my head and later that day the news informed me of the inhuman Peshawar tragedy. I wasn't sure anymore about how I should have been feeling at that point of time.

UK had been nice to me thus far, with its weather and the people. There was an aura of quiet all around, none of the cars would honk horns and people would speak in such polite humble voice. Inside my apartment, the only sounds I'd hear at night are those of the creaking wooden floors - a little eerie at times to be honest. Such was the quiet that I could even hear the sound of the raindrops dripping from my window pane when it rained. But all of this was about to change because I was going to the loudest place in London - Ministry of Sound! Me and a few of my colleagues were going on a Saturday, so it'd open at 11 pm and stay open till 7 in the morning next day. We were pretty excited because the place had such a rave reputation. As we went in, the music was loud, temperatures were rising and it was just coming to life, the only thing that could hold us back was our own self and it seemed like all the people inside were there for one reason and one reason only - to lose their self! The party stayed on till about 6 in the morning when we just couldn't bear our hurting legs anymore and thought of heading home, back to Slough. That in itself was a whole new ordeal altogether. I am not a thermometer but I guess the temperatures must have been to the lesser side of zero because it was biting cold! The tube stations wouldn't open for another hour and a half and it seemed like a good idea to hire a cab and get to the London Paddington train station. We had to wait for about 20 minutes and I will go out on a limb and say that it was the longest 20 minutes of my life! We were able to get ourselves home by about 8 in the morning and just crashed in our beds. Oh dear Sunday, you couldn't have come at any better time!

Later that week, a few of us work colleagues went pub hopping in and around the Windsor area. There was live music in most of the ones we went to, it was soothing in its own way. One of the pubs we went in boasted about how it has been there since the seventeenth century! It was a small homely structure that was really cramped up. I got really sloshed that evening and was grateful to the colleague who offered to drop me home. Christmas was around the corner and it was time for people to go on their vacations. Workplace attendance was getting thinner every day and I was excited for my own reasons because I had a wish - ever since I can remember, and it was about to come true. On Christmas day, I was to go to Macclesfield, to meet a friend. A work colleague was kind enough to offer me a ride as we were going the same direction. Well, there's something I didn't know about Christmas in the UK. It is a festival and the whole place starts shutting down on Christmas eve. There is no public transport on Christmas day or the day after (boxing day as they call it). Streets get deserted and without private transport, it is really difficult to move around. All the more reason for cabs to charge double. Never mind. Next day, was the big day - day the wish came true. Boxing day. English Premier League was offering a good selection of boxing day matches. Manchester United were playing Newcastle United, and I was going to watch them - live! I reached Manchester city center from Macclesfield and while I was about to get tickets for the tram, the ticket guy was a Manchester City fan I guess, because he mocked me as I was headed towards their rival team. I didn't care, nothing could touch me now. It was a gloomy cold day in Manchester and we stopped at the pre-match bar for a pint before we went in. I headed towards the gates and that is when the realization hit me, I was at the theater of dreams, Old Trafford, Manchester! As I walked through the gates, I could see a bit of the green pitch and could hear the noise somewhat. I got goosebumps. When I reached the stands, the players were warming up. Luckily we had seats quite near to the pitch so I was able to see them real up close. Thankfully the match turned out to be decent. Wayne Rooney scored two and created one for Robin van Persie to score. Radamel Falcao had a good game as well but couldn't get a goal to his name that day while Angel Di Maria was out injured. Manchester United won 3-1 that day. Newcastle United fans were pretty noisy before the match started with their singing and sledging, but as the match went on, our Stretford End boys put them in their place. I was still pretty dreamy as we left the stadium. I was one among the 75, 318 in the stadium that afternoon and it felt a bit too good to be true. There were not going to be any trains or trams that time, so one guy suggested we walk from the stadium to Trafford center. He was pretty sure that it was nearby - a decision we were to regret later that evening. It was already drizzling, and as we started walking the rains got stronger. And after a while, it started snowing. We would have walked a good six mile distance that evening and by the time we made it to the Trafford Center, there wasn't a square inch left on my body that wasn't wet and cold. I was able to make it back to Macclesfield just in time for dinner. An evening to remember.

Before I knew it, New Year's Eve had arrived. I was to go to the London Eye to watch the famous fireworks. It was only that year that Mayor of London thought of putting up tickets for the event. They were sold out even before anyone knew of it. Whole of the neighbourhood was closed down for non ticket holders. A event steward informed me that we could get down to Waterloo bridge to get a good view of the show. When we reached, midnight was still a good five hours away. People were already there occupying spots on the bridge. Thames was flowing below and it was not very kind to us with its strong cold blades of wind. Up on the bridge though, it was the biggest party imaginable. Somehow we were able to endure the whole five hours, and then the show started. As the fireworks shot up in the sky from the London Eye, everybody was awestruck. It lasted for a good ten minutes. It was definitely worth the troubles we took. I took some time to reflect on the year that had gone by. It was a good one for me. Lots of ups and down - kind of settled down at the new job, went on a trip to Thailand, went scuba diving, got an ACL reconstruction surgery done, met the girl that took my heart away, came down to the UK, visited Old Trafford. This was more than I could ask for. Now, it was time to begin a new year and draw new plans. Into the new year, I got myself Playstation 4 - an expensive toy one might say. A senior colleague had come from India in the first week of the new year, and a few small house parties followed. A leisurely trip to London happened one weekend. I and two other work friends of mine went around London, with no destination in mind. We wandered around Westminster, Charing Cross, London Bridge and ended our evening with a nice sumptuous dinner in Camden Town. The London Tower Bridge was a good sight in the evening, with its elegant lights. Photographers flocked the places nearby with their tripods, trying to get a good spot. We got home just in time before the cold got too uncomfortable. Rest of the month was lazy, weekdays continued to torment, and weekends couldn't have passed by any sooner. One Sunday I went back to London, watched the Change of Guards at the Buckingham Palace. To me, it seemed a bit over-hyped, and a waste of resources, people and time. The place was crowded and people were all over fences, walls, and everything else they could find to stand on. In sometime I had had enough and I wandered off. I made my way through the tube network to Highbury and Islington station. At a ten minute walk, there stood the Emirates stadium - home of Arsenal football club. After I came out of the station, all I had to do was follow a huge mass of people, heading in one direction. Arsenal were playing Aston Villa and I thought it'd be nice to get the feel of another match day for real. As soon as I reached, I could hear all the noise from outside and in sometime the PA guy screamed the name "Giroud" and the whole stadium erupted. I knew Arsenal were ahead. I went around the stadium, and then took tubes to Fulham Broadway. Just outside, was Stamford Bridge - home of Chelsea football club. After visiting Old Trafford and Emirates, this one seemed a bit petite. The place was pretty deserted, a few souls wandered about, clicking pictures in pout poses. I spent the later part of the afternoon shopping on Oxford Street. Once I reached home, the sudden realization struck me - that was to be my last weekend in London, at least for the time being. My little United Kingdom trip had come to an end, three months had flew past me. It was better than I had expected, colder than I had anticipated and but surely, it brought more with it than I could have wanted. All in all - an experience to cherish! Oh and I clicked the picture below on my way to work one day. Amazing parking skills I must say!