12/30/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
We Americans talk a grand game about our love and respect for the family. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day while I was in London, I had a harsh encounter with the concept of loving and respecting the family.
On Dec. 14, I flew from Tampa International to London’s Gatwick Airport on British Airways. Getting from Gatwick to downtown London, I took the BritRail train to Victoria Station. Everything went without a hitch. From Victoria Station, I rode in one of those grand, spacious black taxis to my living quarters on Gower Street.
And so, here I was, in London, home to 7.2-million people, for 12 glorious days.
I have never had an easier time getting around in a large city. The taxis aside, nothing is more efficient than London’s public transportation. On my first day, I went to a Tube station, or Underground, and bought a Travel Card, nicknamed the Oyster Card. It was good for the train, which runs Monday through Saturday from 5 a.m. to midnight, and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and good for the bus, which runs 24/7.
From anywhere in London, you can ride a bus or train to get within easy walking distance of any destination. Being a travel extrovert, I had ultimate freedom with London’s taxis, buses and Tube at my disposal. Then, three days before Christmas, my rose-colored glasses were shattered: I learned that all public transportation, including the black taxis, did not operate on Christmas Day.
Now, I had a major problem and a potential personal disaster: I was scheduled to catch a flight back to the United States on Christmas. Thinking that, like New York, London never slept, I assumed that on Christmas morning, I would get a taxi to Victoria Station and then a train to the airport. Everyone I asked told me the same thing: London shuts down for Christmas.
I went online and saw that Gatwick Express, the bus service, had replacement coaches to the airport on Christmas. I bought my ticket online. Not taking any chances, I went to Victoria Station, where Gatwick Express operates, to confirm that I had a seat on a bus and to find out where the bus would depart.
The blokes at BritRail, granddaddy of everything going in and out of the airport, told me that nothing – no buses or trains – was going to Gatwick on Christmas Day. I showed them my online ticket.
Sorry, old boy.
I then was told to go to Gatwick Express. The women there told me that transportation in the United Kingdom would be shut down, period. Annoyed with my U.S. persistence, they sent me to National Railway, which sent me to National Express, which operates buses in and out of Victoria Station. Here, a man said that, indeed, replacement coaches, operated by National Express, would be going to Gatwick.
Now, I was beginning to breathe easier and telephoned a private taxi company to take me to Victoria Station on Christmas. The next day, Christmas Eve, I returned to Victoria Station to find the exact location where the coach would leave from. I went to Gatwick Express.
This time, a kindly chap confirmed that replacement coaches would go to the airport and directed me to the spot in the ground-floor parking lot where the buses would leave from.
Before leaving his ticket counter, I asked, “How can London, one of the world’s great cities, with more than 7-million people, shut down – even for Christmas?”
In that famous British intonation, he said: “We all have families.”
“Fine,” I said, “but this is London, England.”
He smiled and returned to his paperwork.
I walked to the spot and asked the men working there if the Gatwick Express would leave from there Christmas morning. They did not know what I was talking about. Because I had a ticket in hand, I went home hoping things would work out.
On Christmas morning, my taxi did not arrive at 9. When it had not arrived at 9:30, I telephoned another company, which sent a taxi within 15 minutes. When I arrived at Victoria Station for the coach to Gatwick, I found dozens of other people milling around. The entire building was closed, some doors chained.
Like me, these scared people were looking for the bus to the airport. All of us were desperate for information. A policeman listened to us and went off to find information about the buses. He never returned.
A man in our crowd went in search of answers. He returned about 10 minutes later and said that a bus was in a parking lot waiting for us.
To make a long story short, I got to the United States. I returned to work at the St. Petersburg Times still angry with the man’s explanation – “We all have families” – for shutting down all of the United Kingdom for Christmas and making my life a temporary nightmare.
I still would be angry if a colleague had not put matters into perspective. She said that the people of Britain really put their families first. They did not simply pay lip service to the concept. They spent quality time with their families. Yes, I had a problem. But the people of London had their families.
I think I understand.