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GB Trip - 2011

Scottish American Society

Carol Leslie Hosticka recently returned home to Scotland for a visit.  This is an account of her travel experiences.  If you're planning a trip over there soon, you might wish to read this and take notes.

Now I'm back from Scotland and England, I thought I'd drop you a line about my experience.  I flew via American Airlines through JFK, which was a stress-free, trouble-free experience.  Luggage went right through, and my domestic arrival was only 5 gates down from my international departure!  Yay!  Flights were on time, everyone was cordial, online meals were actually not bad at all. When I returned through JFK, however, I had almost 6 "checkpoint charlies" to go through, plus had to get my case off the carousel and put it on another before grabbing my connecting flight - stressful when one's tired and already jetlagged... My cousin was delayed at Manchester Airport giving me an hour to wait, struck by the absence of pay phones. It would be upon my departure I would notice one tucked around a corner at the far end of the waiting area. Everyone has their "mobile" in the UK now, and pay phones are becoming extinct.  My cell, bought in order to use it abroad, proved to be a dud - no signal.  I called Verizon only to be told I'd been sold the wrong model for international travel.  This, despite my discussion with the sales person about my requirements.  Oh well.  The best laid plans...  And despite having my phone cards from Walgreens at the ready, the absence of a pay phone nixed any possibility of calling my cousin to inquire as to his whereabouts (but I was able to use the International Card with no difficulty later in the trip). His arrival was a relief, and we drove to his small village of Cressage in Shropshire, where I recovered quickly from jetlag over the next three days.  

It was then I booked my railfare for Scotland, Wolverhampton to Glasgow.  Rail travel has changed!  Instead of good old British Rail, there are now approximately 5 companies running the tracks, including Virgin Rail, who each intercommunicate.  Thus, one now has to book an exact train and seat, as in an airline, or take your chances on the day of getting a seat.  Given my initial train was "fu' tae the gunnels," I was so relieved to have a reserved seat. I thought I should make a quick pit stop prior to traveling, and discovered this luxury is now 30p in public places - so, if you are going to the UK, be prepared!  I bought a coffee while I waited.  I calculated it cost $7, but its delicious flavor dissipated my anxiety about the increased cost of living, and if my vacation dollars would stretch the full three weeks. I'd find myself craving Cafe Americano and treating myself everyday!  I had taken $1,000 cash, and found myself taking out another $500 by the third week, none of which paid hotel or most meals, but transport within UK, treats, coffees, a round of drinks here and there, nothing much - amazing.  

It was to be Halloween, and adult "trick or treaters" in costumes filled the trains on their way to party time in Glasgow city. It was a surreal experience, and I do admit to feeling vulnerable, more than a wee bit cautious of these rough and ready characters.  Yet my fear was unfounded, and no-one bothered me.  I had my luggage squeezed into the windowseat beside me, not seeing anywhere for luggage except a wee overhead shelf, dreading if someone demanded their seat. ( It was upon my return trip I discovered that there are luggage racks every other carriage, plus smaller cases can be squeezed into a space between the backs of seats.) Something interesting with rail travel too is that the same journey changes price depending on time of day, plus early booking cuts costs, and something they don't tell you is that you can purchase segments of your journey, and, added together, you save considerably, perhaps almost $100 on railfare.  If you know someone over there, they can give you advice on the segments.  It's not against the rules, but the rail companies apparently don't really like when you do this for they lose money. However, they can't stop you.  I wish I had bought a BritRail travel pass prior to leaving.  I'd looked at the prices and reckoned they seemed too high.  Now I understand why.  If I had had the Pass, I could have hopped, skipped and jumped around the trains, not be locked in to specific, timed trains.  This would have permitted me longer time in my home town, Edinburgh, but I was forced to leave on my non-refundable (cheaper) rail ticket.  Darn. 

Glasgow seemed busier than ever, with so many pedestrians, so many cars, noise and bustle (as did Edinburgh, btw).  As soon as I arrived, I knew I was "hame" - welcomed by a drunk, singing pedestrian, who was asking for a pound.  There would be many of those, of all ages, which reinforced just how hard times are for many in the UK.  I would see such a parallel to the US, the haves and have-nots, with that middle-class tier being eroded.  All those "haves" would be telling me about their cruises, their world trips, showing me their diamonds, their treasures, and I did my share of enthusing, actually happy for them, hoping they could hold onto that as long as they could given these times (and perhaps feeling just a wee bit envious as it had taken me much time and effort to save for this trip, and I was doing it lean).  Sadly, for the first time, I felt some anti-USA sentiment, blame for the financial crisis in Europe, tough stuff. Weather was fantastic for Fall, 65 degrees, sunny and blue skies, only a light breeze, with only one day where it "bucketed" with rain in Glasgow, and I "wiz fair drookit!"  I went to the Transportation Museum and spent several hours marveling at the display of all modes of transport in the UK over the past century, including a Glasgow street rebuilt inside from around 1920s.  How it brought back memories of my childhood, visiting my grandparents in their "room and kitchen" in Springburn.  There were black and white movies about Glasgow history, the Locarno ballroom, the Palais, the Kinema, all places I'd heard my mother describe from her youth, plus Laurel and Hardy's visit there, fun stuff. For anyone visiting, it's a free museum, and well worth the visit.

My beloved Edinburgh's city centre is completely torn up with construction, necessitating it be vehicle-free while they build a new tram system.  This has gone on for four years, and it has to be redone as the tarmacadem was subpar.  It was rough seeing Princes St with a "black eye" for it surely is one.  Everyone, without exception, complained about having to be rerouted away from the city centre, shops had closed down, travel times were longer than ever, traffic had moved to George Street causing it to be clogged with double decker buses and such, and yes, potholes!  I was, however, impressed that the buses have gone electronic with ongoing, changing signs as to their whereabouts, future stops, "next stop is...", etc., as well as the same electronic screens at bus stops - way in advance of anything I've seen in Cleveland to date. Buses are comfortable enough to travel the 2.5 hours to St Andrews where I went to visit my niece who studies at the University.  The campus is small, but ancient and beautiful.  We found a local pub, a student hangout, and enjoyed a glass of ginger beer while we waited on the next bus back.  I naturally thought of Prince William who had studied there, wondering if I were sitting in the same common room as he had.  Students were everywhere with their back packs en route to class.  Back at Edinburgh, I enjoyed the Edinburgh Museum of Art, another free wonder and truly gorgeous place to spend an afternoon after enjoying a piping hot plate of "mince 'n' tatties" in a local cafe.  

I was struck throughout the UK at the prices, wondering how they make ends meet.  A coffee is around $7, gas around $10-11 a gallon, simple lunches around $20, non-fancy dinners around $40, coffee and scone around $18, bottle of water $5, all of which adds up quickly.  The Glasgow to Edinburgh train was $18, a 45 minute journey, and the return Glasgow to Wolverhampton $165; St Andrews by bus $50. An afternoon movie plus chocolate ice was $30!  A glass of wine at the pub was $16 (imagine buying a round of drinks!).  So yes, one can't visit the UK (or Europe for that matter) very much on a budget with much ease. A simple rule of thumb is to anticipate that whatever we pay in dollars and cents is what they pay in pounds and pence - and then do the math based on conversion of $1.65 buys one pound.  In Glasgow, I stayed at the Premier Inn (one of a chain in the UK), and didn't pay for "a Scottish breakfast," preferring to purchase something while out and about.  It was 75 pounds a night based on early purchase of 5 nights (but they seem to be always offering cheaper stays really).  It was clean, had a nice little restaurant, some bar facilities, hair drier, iron, TV, phone, free parking, the usual culprits.  The subway from the hotel into town was 1 pound 20 pence one way, and buses in Edinburgh were 1 pound 30 pence one way. That's important if you opt for a hotel toward the outskirts of town and want to spend your time downtown, for those bus fares can add up too (week-long/month-long passes are available).  One plus is that a bottle of decent wine is only $5!

Shropshire was its usual beautiful self, peppered by little villages, "black and whites," the Tudor buildings, most original era, accommodating boutiques, pubs, coffee shops, tea shops and the likes.  I like how many of the villages have pedestrian precincts in their shopping areas, free from traffic which was plentiful.  Clothes always seem so well tailored in the UK, better made, last longer, with perhaps more sophisticated styles for everyday wear than their more casual, relaxed American counterparts.  Naturally I hit "Marks & Sparks" (Marks & Spencer's), the nationally known department store that all Brits know and love - great clothes, well made, fabulous food and wine, although a bit pricey there.  I also attended a wonderful Women's Institute meeting ("the WI"), where a sisterhood of Englishwomen do good works, raise all sorts of funds, have done since WWI, and who were meeting coupled with covered dishes, and 6 versions of English trifle (yum!), plus selling poppies, the lapel symbol commemorating all War wounded.  The meeting was topped with a singing rendition of "Jerusalem," belted out by all.  Most villagers who know about the WI say "it's all jam and Jerusalem," given the plethora of jam sponges that cross its gates.  What a lovely meeting it was, very reminiscent of the Daughters of Scotia, I must say.  Weather complied except for the final 4 days when I was treated to misty hills, rain soaked winding country lanes, sheep in the fields, and windscreen wipers doing their best.  But it was England, and even England in the rain is beautiful!  Despite learning to drive on that side of the road all those years ago, I am not sure I could drive there now.  Cars are bigger, more abundant, faster, and those curves were daunting.

A trip visiting family isn't really a vacation in so much as there's talking, talking and more talking, peppered with meals, coffees, more meals, more car rides, more sitting, and more talking.  For anyone with a bad back, or sore vocal cords, it's difficult, for sitting is the order of the day in one house or another.  Everyone is kind, and emotions flow given years of separation, and distance across the Atlantic. I usually find I need a vacation after such a "vacation."  Retracing one's steps is poignant, as I did via my elementary school, and my first home, actually walking up to the door and touching it... Seeing my elderly mother made me realize how I too am aging, and that we are each fragile.  Now it's time for the younger generations, such as my nieces starting university, on the brink of who knows what.

All in all, it was a good trip, although etched with sadness at the many changes, the loss of known landmarks that always made me feel I was "home."   The biggest surprise of all was my aching homesickness for America, the land that I now love and call home.  Jerry was waiting at the airport, a truly welcome sight after so long. He had held up the fort admirably, caring for our elderly, sick cat, walking our dog, and keeping the home fires burning. I doubt I'll be taking off anywhere else on my own for a very long time!

If you wish to get in touch with Carol, her email address is:  carol.lesliehosticka@gmail.com