Okay, I’m back. Did I miss anything?
England ended up being a lot of fun, though it didn’t start out that way. For reasons I won’t try to explain here, Dominic and I took different flights. His landed early. Mine was two hours late.
We had flown through the night, so it was now early Monday morning. We quickly discovered that virtually every piece of information we had about getting from Heathrow Airport to the conference site (that would be the University of Reading) was incorrect or incomplete in some way.
Step one was to catch a bus from Heathrow to Reading. This was accomplished by wandering over to the central bus station at the airport and getting in a line labelled “Train Tickets.” The logic, apparently, was that the bus would actually drop us off at the Reading train station.
Anyway, having solved that puzzle we figured our problems were over. We found the bus and looked forward to showing up in time to hear a few of the conference talks. We thought that, you see, because the conference website gave the distinct impression that once you got as far as the Reading Train Station you’re basically there. We expected the campus to be a short walk from the station.
Silly us. By the time the bus pulled into Reading it was raining fairly hard. One more “Up Yours!” from the travel gods. Happily, that stopped pretty quickly. Realizing that we hadn’t the faintest idea how to get to the campus, we wandered into the station and asked some official looking person what we should do. Time for the second surprise. You see, there is a rumor going around that in England they speak English. Ho ho. This fellow was not speaking any language I recognized. Impressive accents they have in Reading.
Suffice it to say we eventually discerned that we would have to take a bus to the “Three Tuns” stop. This was done by wandering a few blocks from the station to find the appropriate bus stop. This we managed to do, and we once again figured our problems were over. Heck, Three Tuns was the last stop on the line. We literally couldn’t miss it! The bus arrived, we piled out (along with quite a few other people) and looked around for something that looked like a university.
But there was nothing.
So now we’re in the middle of nowhere, still carrying our bags, totally losing our enthusiasm for doing any mathematics that morning, trying to figure out where to go. And wouldn’t you know it! After walking to the nearest major intersection, we saw a little sign that said “University” with an arrow pointing down what looked to be the road to nowhere.
Good enough. We barreled down the road, still carrying our bags remember, and finally found the entrance to the University of Reading (Whiteknights campus, to be exact). Sigh of relief. Problem solved. A couple of savvy customers like us don’t get put out by a few travel headaches. And look! Here’s a campus map. We’ll just figure out where Palmer Hall is, and we can get this trip started right and proper.
Except there was no Palmer Hall on the map.
Grrrr. Well, long story short, after considerable wandering we finally managed to find the building. Picked up our nametags, patted ourselves on the back for our resourcefulness. Only thing left to do now was to check in at the dorm where we would be staying, drop off our bags, and start enjoying the math.
Except that the guy behind the desk had no idea where we were supposed to go to check in. And when we found a guy who claimed to know where we were supposed to go, his directions ended up leading us into the woods.
Things went on in this vein for a bit longer. We found the building where we were supposed to check in, only to find that our dorm was located at a considerable distance form the conference site, somewhere in the middle of the forest. Finally found the dorm, only to discover my swipe card didn’t work. Finally got into the dorm, only to discover that the promised soap and towels were not there, meaning we had to spend part of the afternoon acquiring these items. (This we managed to do, discovering along the way a bus stop much closer to campus than the one to which we had been directed previously). Discovered that the dorm and its bathrooms were quite horrifying, and I say that as a single guy who requires a certain level of filth just to feel at home.
But why dwell on the negative! After that exhausting first day, the rest of the trip was all sunshine and good times. On Tuesday I saw one of the very best hour-long research talks I’ve ever seen at a math conference (about cycle decompositions in complete graphs, which might merit a post of its own someday). Later that day I gave my rhetorical masterpiece of a talk on my beloved Cayley graphs of matrix groups. No one shouted “Wrong!” in the middle of it, so I guess things went okay.
We left the cofnerence on Wednesday to visit Dominic’s sister in Brighton. We stayed with her for the rest of the week. Wednesday night and Thursday were spent bumming around Brighton, which seemed like a pleasant enough city.
And on Friday, drumroll plese, we visited Downe House! That would be Charles Darwin’s house and land, now a museum. It’s not the easiest place in the world to get to; starting from Brighton it took two trains and a bus; but it was well worth the trouble. I felt smarter just for standing in Darwin’s study.
On Saturday Dominic and I journeyed over to London and spent an expensive night in the local Hilton. Bummed around for part of the afternoon, and decided to buy theater tickets from a guy in a booth in Piccadilly Circus.
We ended up seeing (of all things!) Fiddler on the Roof. Of course, like all good Jews I had long ago memorized the music and lyrics to the show. And I had seen the movie and two amateur productions of it. But I’d never seen a professional production of the show. I must say, though, that I’ve been to a few Jewish weddings, and I’ve never seen anyone dance like that.
Getting back to Heathrow Sunday morning turned out to be the last headache. I asked at the hotel desk how much cab fare to the airport was likely to be. They said about fifty pounds (over a hundred dollars). That seemed a bit steep, but then it occurred to me that a classy hotel like this probably had some sort of shuttle service to the airport. So I asked the concierge what would be the least expensive way to get to there. He recommended the subway, for four pounds. I asked him where I would find the nearest subway stop. He pointed across the street. I asked if I needed to find a particular line. He said it was the Piccadilly Line I wanted but since that was the only train that stopped at this particular station there was little danger of picking the wrong one. I asked if I needed to change trains anywhere. He said no, this one would take me all the way to Heathrow. I thanked him and muttered some curses in the general direction of the hotel desk that they hadn’t thought to mention this.
And things worked out just like the man said. Took the subway to Heathrow, successfully found my plane, tried to pretend there wasn’t a five year old sitting behind me throwing a six-hour temper-tantrum (which involved frequent bouts of seat kicking), and immersed myself in Virgin Atlantic’s most excellent in-flight entertainement system. All in all, a pleasant and successful trip.
I sure am glad I wasn’t driving, though, but I’ll save that for another post.