January 2023 Part One (Jan 6-Jan 9)

For the start of this story, we need to step into the “way back machine” all the way to 2010. Back then, due to circumstances, I had been applying for jobs in Europe. One of the gigs I applied to was teaching English to kids in Hungary. I got the job and the deal was I had a one-year contract with a mutually agreed upon possibility of a 1 year extension.

So in the late summer of 2010, I packed up most of my worldly belongings, shoved them into a storage shed (originally a pay as you go deal and then in my folks’ backyard) and headed off into parts unknown.

When I left, I was pretty sure I would be gone for the two years (like the Peace Corps) and then figure out what I wanted to do with my life upon my return.

Except things didn’t quite work out that way.

Instead, by the end of October 2010, I knew I didn’t want to stay an extra year. Hell, I didn’t want to finish out that initial year, but I had committed so I would stay. Not that there was anything wrong, in general. The people were warm and welcoming, the students great. But I just wasn’t prepared for living in a small, rural farming community of <20,000 people, populated by no fast-food restaurants, no movie theatres, one barely-there internet cafe and > 150 bars.

Talking to my friend Rolanda, I explained I wasn’t happy and would be going home at the end of my contract. She said I should move to Lithuania and would convince her mother to help me find a job.

Which she did. And which is where I’ve been working since the fall semester of 2011.

In the intervening 11+ years, I’ve gotten married and had a child and realized that going back to live in America was no longer really an option. But I still had all that stuff sitting in the storage shed. So Rasa (the aforementioned marriage partner) and I discussed it and decided that January, when I didn’t have to be in the classroom, would be a good time to go back to Vegas and take care of it. Sort through the boxes, decide what needed to be saved, what could be tossed and what could be put to better use in someone else’s care. We also decided I could resume my trips to London to see theatre at the same time, ultimately leading to a three-week excursion encompassing lots of air miles to places on two different continents and a galaxy far, far away.

Of course, when doing something like this, there’s a fair bit of preplanning involved, including sussing out tickets and schedules and various other things. This means I booked my January flights to America way back in October and I let Lin (my sister from another mister whom I stay with when in London) know the rough dates I’d be there. The reason for letting Lin know is that in addition to staying with her, she knows all the right people and how to get good deals for the best theatre productions in London! I also hit up Troy to see if he’d be interested in going to Disneyland with me (he was). There will be much more on these two particular developments a bit later in the story.

And so, after a fun holiday season, including the now infamous Christmas tree story, on January 6 I packed to head out. I was going to take one big suitcase, which would only be half-full, and then pick up a second in Vegas, packing both with whatever I felt important enough to bring home right now (there were a few particular items I was looking for).

January 6 – Heading to Berlin… I mean London

My flight was scheduled for 1pm and no matter how many times I get burnt, I still listen to the advice and end up getting to the airport way too early. I suppose this is because whenever I’ve been too relaxed about this, I’ve almost missed the flight. So anyway, I made it to Kaunas International airport (and really, it has to be “international” because there’s almost no domestic flights – the country is just too small) with plenty of time. Eventually, I was able to check in and headed for security. I realized something this time around – something to make my life a tiny bit easier. I put all my electronics into my shoulder bag, which then went into my backpack. This way, when I hit the scanners, I just had to pull out the one bag and everything in it came out and went into a bin. I sailed through and went to the gate to wait for the flight.

My first “adventure” came when I boarded the Ryanair flight to take me to London Stansted. My seat was 23F. I know this because I chose the same seat for both my flights to and from the UK. Naturally, though, there was a guy sitting in my seat. When I questioned him, he explained it was his seat…and his ticket seemed to confirm this. At least partially. And when I got the flight attendant to help sort it out, it seemed that he had been assigned two different seats and wanted to stay where he was, so I got his other seat.

Turned out, it was in an emergency exit row, which, if you know anything about Ryanair, costs extra. So yay me, I got the extra leg room and didn’t have to fork out for it!

The flight itself was uneventful, nor was the baggage claim or entering else…until I went to get on the National Express bus I had rebooked to take me into town. Seems there was a rail strike happening that week (this was a Friday) and so everyone was stuck taking the busses. And I landed at prime rush hour so I ended spending another hour and a half waiting to get on the bus…the bus which was going to take an hour and a half to get me into London. Normally, I wouldn’t worry too much about this, but Lin had managed to score tickets for one of the hottest shows in town, Cabaret, at The Playhouse Theatre (the same place I’d seen Cyrano on my last visit) for that night and I still needed to drop my luggage at her place, which meant getting to her work to get the keys first and…and…and…

Needless to say, I was stressed. The only relief came in the fact that others were in the same position I was, including Sophia, a PhD student in Cultural Anthropology who I became friends with while waiting for the bus. Over the course of three hours (waiting and the ride itself), we had a wonderful conversation and, since she had lived in London for a while (originally from Berlin but now lived in Edinburgh) she helped me figure out when and where to get off the bus.

Me and Sophia during a “blue” period.

By this time, though, things were going to be tight for the evening’s entertainment. I rushed to Lin’s place of work and she graciously offered to take my big suitcase for me, leaving me free to bypass the flat (for the time being) and head directly to The Playhouse via London Underground.

Figuring out the Tube and directions in London is still a mystery for me. In that respect, it’s like San Francisco. I enjoy my time there, but for some reason, I have a geographical block about remembering where things are and how to get there. Throughout the 10 days or so I spent in London this trip, I was constantly surprised when I would run across a familiar landmark or I would nod with recognition when I realized I was somewhere I should have known already.

Be that as it may, I made it to the theatre and at the bag check, discovered the gentleman making sure I wasn’t carrying any contraband had a Lithuanian friend he was meeting later that night. Us Lithuanians are everywhere!

Getting inside was fun. Instead of going through the main doors, the immersive experience of The Kit-Kat Club meant we were let in through the stage door entrance and treated to a complimentary shot of schnapps and several phenomenal environmental performers. There were burlesque dancers and scantily clad musicians all performing a kind of warm-up for the main show. It certainly made it interesting to wander the building before showtime. As did the non-gendered bathrooms. The urinals were positioned such that the women walking by to use the stalls didn’t see anything, but it was still an unusual experience.

My “seats” were actually standing areas near the back of the house, complete with a padded railing to lean against. I didn’t realize until later that they were actually numbered, and I spent a bit of time in the wrong place, but eventually it all got sorted and I was directed to where I needed to be. The entire house had been redone since I had been there before, replacing the traditional proscenium with a stage in the round, surrounded on all sides, mostly with cabaret tables, complete with phones for folks to make discreet assignations. The entire thing gave the feeling of coming into the actual Kit-Kat Club, as envisioned in the original Isherwood stories.

The performances were great, with some of the minor characters outshining the leads. Knowing I was going to be seeing the play, Lin had suggested I watch the 1972 Oscar-winning film beforehand, which I did. I’m glad I did, too, because director Bob Fosse made changes in the film from the original play which, to my mind, actually strengthen the story. But seeing the raw energy of the stage production just isn’t to be beat, even if the story isn’t the same. The basic themes are still present, and the shock ending of “If You Could See Her” plays so powerfully in person (especially with the amazing gorilla costume) that it’s hard not to get chills.

By the time I made it back to Lin’s flat, I realized I hadn’t eaten all day, so we talked, and I had several rice cakes smothered in spreadable cheese, until 1am.

January 7 – Feeling Hex-ed

Naturally, due to such a late evening the night before, getting up on Saturday morning was a bit later than expected. This was okay, as we didn’t really have any plans until the mid-afternoon. In fact, these first few days in London were designed to be fairly casual and relaxed because I was flying out for America on Monday, and that was occupying most of my thoughts.

When we did get out of the house, it was around lunchtime, so we hit the high street in Walthamstow looking for a place to eat. The “high street,” near as I can figure the definition for one not born into the culture or living full time in same, is just the main street in that particular area. Of course, since London is made up of many, many smaller areas, all with distinct and specific neighborhood names (Like Walthamstow, where Lin is currently living) there are also many, many high streets.

So down to the high street we went. We ended up at a little chicken place called “Miss Millie’s” that Lin had wanted to try before hopping on a Tube back into central London. We were heading towards the National Theatre for a matinee of Hex, a musical fairytale. Aside from Cabaret, this was the only other show Lin had arranged during the pre-planning phase of the vacation for this part of the trip. There was also & Juliet to come upon my return, and the rest of the shows would be arranged as and when they were needed.

On the way to the National, just before going over the Waterloo Bridge, we stopped for a coffee at Caffè Nero, a local chain. Thankfully, I had grabbed my “London Oyster Card Holder” before I left home in Kaunas and so was prepared. This holder is a little plastic folder designed for carrying one’s Oyster card, which is used for public transport. I have a number of these holders, and I use them for a variety of things, including my bus card at home. My “London” holder, though, in addition to an Oyster card (which happened to have a £5 balance on it) also had my Foyle’s Loyalty card and a Caffè Nero stamp card with a couple of stamps already on it! When you’re a regular visitor to a place, it makes sense to keep track of the things which give you a free coffee (and yes, I will upgrade to the app on my return). We each got a fancy specialty coffee, which had been on offer for the holidays and was now going away and carried them with us as we crossed over the Thames towards the theatre.

Before the show started, we hit the gift shop. The nice thing about the shelves at the National Theatre Gift shop is that they probably have the most plays for sale I’ve ever seen outside of Samuel French (And inside of Samuel French it’s too dark to read!). It was fun to see all the books of current and recent shows among the classics, including one which Lin, who is an associate at a well-known agency, had a huge hand in developing! It’s so cool to hang out with the movers and shakers!

The show, in The Olivier Theatre, which is the largest stage of the complex (at just over 1100 seats), provided some amazing spectacles! We were sitting just a few rows from the stage and were treated to some wonderful performances. My only exception to the show was the uneven tone. The basic story, a common dirt fairy who wants to improve her lot in life and be a flying fairy, ends up casting a hex (using magic for evil) and setting in motion all sorts of nasty evil things, including a baby eating troll.

All of that is great. There’s some Sleeping Beauty references and some fun, catchy songs, but overall, it seemed it wanted to play most things for laughs and very kid friendly, but then it would veer into grotesqueries that, yes, fit into the original Grimm Brothers folklore but still a bit scary for a more modern audience of young’uns.

By the time the show was over, and with no specific plans for the evening, we headed out for a walk (something we did often). Our first stop was Forbidden Planet, a huge chain of geekery. Normally, I really like going there, but for some reason, even though it wasn’t crowded for a Saturday night, it felt very crowded to me. Also, and I had this experience in Vegas as well, while there were many things I liked and would have loved to have on my shelves, part of the purpose of this trip was to get rid of stuff…not bring more stuff in. So I’m afraid wandering the kind of place I should have been over the moon about visiting in the end, just left me cold and slightly uncomfortable.

From there, as it was getting dark, we hit up a Chipotle (man I miss Mexican, even faux Mexican, food) and then Lin grabbed a bubble tea from her favorite bubble tea shop. We kind of just let our feet lead us and we wandered through the Leicester Square Christmas Market, home to a traveling Cirque show and some really cool bronze sculptures.

We ended the night drinking ciders and continuing our conversation at the White Horse Pub before catching a late night train back to the house.

January 8 – God’s Own and then some…

Sunday again started slowly. So slowly, in fact, we missed the good breakfast at Gregg’s, which I gather is some kind of eat on the go institution. I did get a couple of take-away pigs in a blanket kind of thing (and I ended up with too many since I didn’t think two would be enough and they had a special if you ordered four, which I did – I ended up tossing two of them – my eyes are still bigger than my stomach!).

With food in hand, Lin explained we were going to see “God’s Own Junkyard.

“God’s own what now?” I responded.

“You asked to see this place at some point so off we go.”

I absolutely did not remember ever having mentioned it, and we figured it was one of those things that cross your social media feed from someplace like Atlas Obscura or some such and it looked interesting so I sent it to Lin with a note that it would be cool to check out. I find a lot of those kinds of posts and they always seem interesting but then I never actually pursue it (or even remember about it, even when the opportunity arises to check it out). This time, though, the place in question was about 2km from Lin’s place, and she knew about it, so this is how we found ourselves trekking to God’s Own Junkyard on a beautiful Sunday morning.

Describing what it is, though, is another matter. It’s part art gallery, part cultural touchstone, part prop rental house, and part custom sign shop. Oh yeah, and it’s also got a cafe and a gift shop. Ultimately, it’s the storage and display area for a guy who does custom neon and signage for theatre and film. There are pieces from Marvel and Kubrick films, a “Motel” sign from Blade Runner and a tossed aside header for a Tardis. And it’s all available for rent or purchase. There’s also a guy named Dane.

Dane, who looks like he spent his formative years on the road as a guitar tech with a hair metal band while still making fun of the guys in the group, is the sales guy. We met him sitting in front of an industrial heater. Being me, I struck up a conversation and got the rundown on the place. He pointed out several of the more famous pieces and regaled us with a few stories about his time there. I’m hoping that at some point, he writes a book and the place publishes it. It would sell for sure.

Wandering around the warehouse, I also came up with an idea. I decided to take pictures of any cool letters I could find, looking for the right combination that Monki could spell out her real name. It was a fun project I actually continued the rest of the trip.

Leaving the Junkyard, Lin directed us back to London proper and we had a nice long walk, in the pouring rain mind you, down Oxford Street, doing a bit of shopping. I wanted to go to the Disney Store, knowing I’d have to get something for Monki to commemorate my upcoming trip to the park itself, and also knowing that prices at the park are outrageous so I was hoping to save at least a little bit. I figured if I could at least take the price temperature, I’d know where things stood.

They weren’t good. But we had fun taking pictures of things.

Since we were already wandering, Lin asked if I’d ever been to Selfridges. I had not. That has now been alleviated. What a wild shop that is! It’s huge and slightly overwhelming (and I bought a set of David Bowie greeting cards because they were for charity). A few more shops later and it was time for food.

Lin directed us to the Mercato Mayfair, a food court inside a former church. I ended up ordering Pad Thai with shrimp (something I hadn’t had in years and yet, ended up eating twice this trip) and we topped off dinner with Dolce Vita, an award-winning gelato (although the folks serving it were a bit meh).

It was still early but we didn’t have a show planned and the weather was shite so instead of doing anything energetic or crazy, we went to Willows on the Roof at John Lewis. While we didn’t get one of the unique domes, we did enjoy a nice mug or two of mulled wine and some great conversation while staying out of the rain.

We ended the night back at the house, with Lin introducing me to The Goes Wrong Show, which started out (as so many things do) as an Edinburgh Fringe show, became a TV show (hilarious) and then a West End hit (complete with magical spin-off created with the magical input of Penn & Teller).

All in all, a truly wonderful and relaxing day. All the better for the fact that the next day, I’d be flying to Vegas and facing a bit of my past.

January 9 – Heathrow and Heading to America

Today was the big day! Lin left early to go to work and I packed up my suitcase, confident in my ability to easily get to Heathrow in plenty of time for my afternoon flight. I mean, really, what else was there to do? I didn’t have a key to the flat so once I left, I was out for the day and I had my big suitcase with me so I wasn’t so keen on dragging it all over. Really, I don’t mind hanging at the airport since I have a book with me at all times and as I’ve stated before, I’d rather be far too early than even a little bit late. I’d also gone over the route several times with Lin, it was two trains and all I had to do was cross over to the next platform and all would be right with the world. I even had an app to double-check in case I had questions.

I took the Victoria line four stops to Finsbury Park, hopped across the platform to the Piccadilly line and waited to take off for Heathrow.

And waited.

And waited.

Eventually, the conductor got on the horn and announced he had been instructed to hold at the next stop and it could be anywhere from five minutes to five hours, he didn’t know, so he suggested we all find alternate routes to wherever we were headed.

No problem. I popped out of the train and spotted a woman with a young child and, more importantly, a suitcase, in tow. I figured she was either coming from or going to the airport so I asked, thinking she might know a good way to get there – always trust the locals, I say.

And she was going to the airport. But she wasn’t a local. Her name was Amy and she and her son were heading back home to a small village in Ireland. She had even less of a clue how to get to Heathrow than I did. I changed my thinking and now, treating it like an Amazing Race challenge, figured two heads were better than one and we teamed up to try and make our flights (I had plenty of time, but she was cutting it close – not as close as the other young woman we ran across who probably didn’t make her flight, and probably wouldn’t have made it even if all the trains were running on-time).

We ended up going to Green Park on the Victoria Line, thinking that we could rejoin the Piccadilly line there. That’s when we heard the news that the Piccadilly line wasn’t going anywhere as there was “someone under the train” and they had no idea how long it was going to be before they got out.

Thankfully, I had my trusty app…except a) we were underground and couldn’t get a signal which was fine since b) I didn’t have any data left on my phone anyway. But we had a wall map of the Tube so we looked at where we needed to go and backtracked from there. We got ourselves to Oxford Circus, took the Bakerloo Line to Paddington where we caught the new Elizabeth Line (and how fancy is that train?) which took us all the way to Heathrow.

Travel emergencies are more fun when you make new friends!

Made it!

I parted ways with Amy and her son and headed up to see if I could check in my bag early, which I could. I used my earlier described method of keeping all the electronics in one shoulder bag to breeze through security, grabbed a Reuben sandwich for lunch (I’d never had a Reuben before – it was yummy) and waited for them to announce my gate.

Whatever time they had originally listed on the departures board to announce our gate they beat it by a significant amount. We were boarded and ready to go long before scheduled and our pilot was hoping to pick up a little time. While we waited on the plane, I took advantage of still being able to connect to the airport Wi-Fi and called Rasa and Monki to chat before take-off. It’s always nice to tell your loved ones you love them before heading into the sky in a slightly aerodynamic metal tube.

The flight itself was fine. I had the window seat with an empty middle and a nice row companion. I was able to read, watch a couple of films and get a little rest before we landed in Vegas. Flying in on my American passport meant I had no problem getting through immigration and met the folks outside.

After a quick stop for Del Taco, we made it to the house and spent the rest of the evening chatting (and throwing clothes in the laundry) before bed.

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