In June, my girlfriend's dad turned eighty. To celebrate, he decided that he'd go back to the land of his birth, America, and he invited my girlfriend and I along to take part in the celebrations. We of course said yes, and decided to go a bit earlier and celebrate our birthdays while we were over there. (My birthday is three days after my better half's, in late May, but, subsequently, because of the way the flights panned out, Heather ended up having her birthday in Birmingham, England, which she was a little miffed about.) So, the plan was that we spend a few days in San Francisco, then on to Sacramento to stay with Heather's half-sister, onto Lake Tahoe for a couple of days, a quick return to Sacramento, then on to San Jose for the big family shindig and to stay at Heather's other sister's house, then the journey back. Phew.
We were worried that we weren't actually going to get there at first, because, at the time, that Icelandic volcano was still playing havoc with British airspace. A week before we left, a colleague of mine had been to Florida and was stranded when his connecting flight in Philadelphia was grounded because of the volcanic ash. He was stuck there for nearly a week. So this was worrying us. Frankly, if this is how Iceland behaves when it plays with volcanoes, then it shouldn't be allowed to have one. Luckily that cleared in time, but we'd booked our flights with British Airways, whose cabin crews decided to strike, affecting our flight. There was a High Court ruling which said the strike was illegal (a bit dodgy, that decision, in my opinion) which meant we could fly out (albeit on a rearranged, earlier flight with limited services) but we weren't certain whether we were getting back or not. As we were staying with Heather's family out there for the most part, this didn't worry us too much, it just meant we'd have an extended holiday if the worst came to the worst.
This was my first trip to the States, my first trip anywhere outside of Europe, and therefore the longest flight I'd ever been on. After all the usual cobblers involving checking in three hours before the flight, paranoid security checks which means you have to take off your bloody shoes now (thanks, Richard Reid!) we faffed about trying to kill time by trying perfumes and aftershaves and eating a full english breakfast. (I'm sure that rule about checking in three hours early is more about getting you to spend money in the airport than it is about security and efficiency.) Although this part is the bit I hate most about flying, I didn't mind it as much this time as I was aware how bloody lucky we were to be flying at all.
So, we get on the plane. I'm dreading being stuck on this thing for ELEVEN HOURS. Heather, who's far more organised and on the ball about these things than I'll ever be, checked us in online previously, ensuring us seats at the front of the cattle section which gave us a couple of inches extra leg room, which, if you're over six foot tall like I am, is a godsend. The flight was fairly uneventful, except for a long period of turbulence when we were flying over Montana which made me very nervous indeed. Nervousness which evolved into sheer bloody terror when they turned all the lights and TV screens off and asked the crew to sit down and put their seatbelts on. I looked out of the window and saw nothing but mountains and jagged sharp pointy rockfaces and realised that if we plummeted, we'd be fucked. Luckily, after about half an hour, the plane stopped bouncing around like a four year old on an inflatable castle and settled down. Shortly after, so did my bowels.
As we were flying out to San Francisco, I decided to watch Bullitt on the inflight entertainment system to try and get me in the mood for Frisco. It basically told me that most of the police out there are all corrupt and I might get killed in a flaming car wreck. It's got a cool score, though. Whatever happened to Lalo Schrifrin? I also watched Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (it was a long flight) which wasn't about San Fran at all, but about Ian Dury, which made me wonder why anyone remembered Dury fondly at all, as he came across as an insufferable arsehole who used the fact that he had a gammy leg to behave like a prick. I'm sure he wasn't like that all the time, but the film made it look like it. Anyway, after eleven hours, several aborted attempts at trying to sleep, and a couple of aborted attempts at trying to eat inedible plane food, we landed in San Francisco.
Before we left for the States, I'd already done my visa waiver form online, and was slightly pissed off I had to do it all again whilst on the plane. If there's one thing I hate, it's filling in forms. (actually, you all know there's more than one thing I hate.) Especially filling out forms I'd already spent valuable time doing before. Then I had to queue up once we got off the plane to answer several of the same questions again. My lovely girlfriend, being an American, didn't have to do this, so she swans off and gets all that 'Welcome home' stuff from the staff. I got an hour's wait with people who have been stewing in their own juices for eleven hours. None of us smelled very nice. Above us all were several televisions showing the same five minute film over and over again, interrupted by a short message in Mandarin telling Chinese people how they should fill the form in. (it probably said 'Do it twice') This is because San Francisco quite famously has the largest Chinatown outside of China (and they have monsters and guys who can conduct lightning and hold their breath until they explode, as seen in that documentary Big Trouble In Little China. Kurt Russell and Kim Cattrall live there, too, apparently.) The film that was on repeat was a montage of a few of the sights and people you might expect to see whilst in America, so you get the obvious ones like the Statue of Liberty, the Vegas strip and the Golden Gate bridge, mixed in with less obvious ones like blue-collar guys sawing up wood in a mill, and an old couple sitting in their rocking chairs on a porch, and many shots of the old Stars and Bars fluttering in the wind all set to rousing music. It was kinda cute the first seventeen times, then it seriously got on my tits. I was actively looking forward to next time the Chinese message came on to give us a minute's peace.
Finally, I get to show my passport to the customs guy, and have to repeat myself with every answer I gave him, because this is obviously the first time he's ever experienced the Brummie accent. (This was a taster for what was to come. Those yanks really can't understand us Brummies at all. How Ozzy Osbourne ever made it big over there is beyond me.) After he gives me a serious stare, he makes me put the fingers on my right hand onto a scanner which takes a picture of my fingerprints, then I have to do the same with my right thumb, then I repeat the procedure with my left hand. They also take a picture of my retina and, for luck, one of my actual face. You know, the most easily recognised identifying feature of my body?
So, with a sigh of relief, I get through. Even though I had nothing to worry about, little niggling fears start percolating in your mind whilst your waiting for an hour, and I was bloody glad to get it over with. I met up with Heather who had already got our bags and had been sitting there waiting for me for ages. She told me she'd just had a glaring competition with Michael Madsen. Apparently, he was on the same flight with us (although he obviously wasn't in economy with the rest of us plebs) and when Heather saw him, she kinda stared at him. Mr. Blonde didn't take kindly to this so he did a kind of sarcastic wide-eyed stare back at her.
We got into a yellow taxi and headed off to our hotel, extremely knackered. At last, we were in America.