I arrived back at the Intercontinental Hotel and was given my new room key. I had been upgraded to an Executive Suite. Apparently there were no standard rooms available for the length of my continued stay so I ended up in a suite bigger than most of the apartments I’ve lived in. In the separate bedroom was a massive king-sized bed and the adjoining bathroom had a stand-up shower, a jetted tub, two toilets and a bidet. And let’s not forget the heated towel rack that comes in handy when you want heated towels! I’m not sure if I was supposed to see the invoice or not but as I was signing on check-in I did happen to notice that this hotel room they had me booked into for 9 nights was a paltry 800 quid per night. I was finally living the high life. And damnit, if I didn’t convince myself I deserved it.
This upgrade in lifestyle was good news indeed. News that the Canadian dollar was overtaking the American dollar was not so good. Since I signed the contract in January to this date in mid-July, I had lost 18% on potential salary (if I sent every penny home – I would just have to send enough home to pay bills). When you realized that I had another 9 days to try and not spend money while in London (losing half of my money in exchange rate), I was in for a potential nightmare financially. So, I did what any concerned individual would do. I went and had a vacation in London.
I went to Camden Market. I went to the London Zoo. I went to the Natural History Museum and various galleries. I paraded around Kensington, Oxford Street, even tried my hand at hanging out in Notting Hill. I would have lunch near the Thames on a bench overlooking the water taxis. The next day I would have lunch overlooking the Palace or Big Ben. My daily routine consisted of something like this:
Wake up, shower, and have a full breakfast. I got breakfast for free so I made the most of it. I would leave the hotel in jeans and a t-shirt, sometimes my favorite pair of ripped jeans, and each day I would be the only person to be seen in the lobby wearing jeans. Most were in designer suits with a Bentley waiting for them outside. I would talk to the staff and wish them a good day. Most would just expect the staff to cater to them. This was not my favorite hotel to be at (but the room was wicked).
I would head to the underground station (three different lines within walking distance) and travel to my chosen destination. By about mid-afternoon I’d stop and grab something quick and cheap to eat – usually from a Tesco’s or a Mark’s and Spencer’s food to go place. I’d take my food and sit in a park or on a bench in Trafalgar Square – wherever I happened to be that day. On 3 separate days I had lunch in Green Park and joined a book club meeting. We discussed Life of Pi, The Kite Runner, and Wicked. Thankfully I had read all 3 books and could offer something to the meeting.
My plan on being frugal, of course, was blown out of the water, but I couldn’t help myself. I don’t normally like big cities, I find them too crowded, but I love London. I would live there (in certain areas) in a heartbeat. I think I insulted Myriam by not sending her an email while I was at the hotel, and it’s a shame too because she was Arabic and could probably have given me some language lessons and things to look out for. My passport with visa was ready on Thursday, nearly a full week from my departure date but I didn’t say a word to anyone and continued my mini-holiday in London.
The final Friday I had in London I decided to dress up a bit (in my own unique style) and head out for dinner and some drinks. I went down towards the London Eye, on the Thames, and walked up and down exploring the nightlife and the different restaurants and bars. I ate dinner alone, watching the people circumnavigate each other and cultural differences, and stopped for a couple of pints in one of the bars. I hopped on the underground and stopped at Green Park Station, a short walk from my hotel and just across the street from Henry’s, where Kurt and Justin were working. I sat at the bar and Simon, a new friend I suppose, gave me 2 beers for the price of 1. Justin got off work early and sat with me and we were joined by Maria, a Brazilian girl who Justin had been trying, unsuccessfully I might add, to chat up. I went downstairs to the bathroom and when I walked out Maria was waiting for me, claiming that I was the sexiest thing she had seen in London and started nibbling and kissing my neck. Her mobile phone rang and she pulled away, telling me, “it’s my husband, I have to take this.” When she hung up and leaned in again I stood there stunned and then walked past her. I may be a lot of things, but I didn’t want to be THAT guy.
I spent the next couple of days with my aunt in Hemel Hempstead and we had a family gathering at a local finery. I saw some relatives I hadn’t seen in years, and that is always good. Later that evening I went out with my uncle Ken and his wife Sally (well, his third wife). Sally is younger than I am, Ken is older than I am, but they were a good match. I put her in her place at the pub when she decided it was her goal for the evening to harass me. Nothing like a shout of “Aunt Sally, can you get me a pint” across a crowded bar wouldn’t fix. I crashed on their couch and had a sword fight with their eldest son Owen the next morning. I won, although he will claim he did.
After dinner at my aunt’s I headed back to London to relax for a few days before heading to Saudi. The latest Harry Potter film, The Order of the Phoenix, hit cinemas that week and I walked to the nearest cinema to watch it. I also bought a copy of the latest and last Harry Potter from Harrods and spent most of my time the last 2 days in London sitting in a park or my room reading.
I was sad to say goodbye to London, a city I had grown to love, but when Wednesday morning came and it was time to check out, I knew that in a few hours I would come back to the hotel and pick up my suitcases and make my journey to Heathrow for my overnight trip to Bahrain and then to Saudi. I stayed near the hotel and had a final drink in Henry’s, served by Simon, and bade him a fond farewell. I hailed a taxi from the hotel and 50 quid later I was outside international departures at Heathrow and headed for the Gulf Air counter.
I waited my turn and once at the counter I was welcomed with the news that I could only check one bag and I’d have to pay for the other one. When I explained that I was on a connecting flight from Canada and had problems acquiring my visa, through no fault of my own, I was basically told it wasn’t his fault and there was nothing he could do about it. I left the queue and contemplated which suitcase to jettison (I refuse to pay 17 quid per kilo baggage fair). As I was struggling internally with my huge choice (which shoes to leave behind, etc.) I was called over to the counter by the Gulf Air representative 2 stalls down from where I was.
“I overheard your problem,” she smiled. “I think it’s stupid.” She told me to put my suitcases on the scale and started typing. “There, you’re all confirmed and your bags are ticketed to Dammam in Saudi Arabia. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
At that moment I would have planted one on her but I just smiled, thanked her, and wandered through security without much trouble. For the record, can I just say I hate having to take off my shoes, my watch, my belt, etc., just to stop the silly thing from beeping. I grabbed a quick bite to eat (a Thai noodle and crawfish salad) and found a seat in the departures lounge. The flight looked packed, judging by the traffic joining me and, as it so happens, a young lady took a seat next to me as we waited to board the plane. We talked about soccer and how her beloved Chelsea would annihilate my beloved Tottenham in the season to follow. She was only half right. We beat them in the Final of the Carling Cup that year and I wish I could have rubbed it in her face.
When I finally took my seat, next to the window, opposite the little chair used for the flight attendants, I was still certain that this would be a great move for me.