We made it back with no problems. The movers were gone early Tuesday afternoon (August 13), we went to the airport Sheraton that night and flew to London the next morning. All of a sudden we noticed that we could understand what everybody was saying (well, except for the usual Britishisms), we could read all the signs; we could even read the newspaper over somebody's shoulder! Until then it hadn't really registered that it had been over two years since we'd been in any country where English was the native language. Not to say that we didn't try different countries – I recently put in the safe deposit box a dozen or so ziplock bags with the unspent remainder of foreign currencies: British, Spanish, Swiss, Czechoslovakian, Hungarian, German, Swedish, Greek, Austrian, Luxembourgish, French, Dutch... (For several weeks after we arrived, occasionally, when eating in a restaurant, my subconscious would still suddenly find unusual the fact that everybody around me was speaking English!)
The London weather was good, although warm in the sun. We went to the Great English Beer Festival held in the Docklands, the newest urban-renewed, yuppified area along the Thames in eastern London. We didn't get to try all 150 or so beers; or even all the (hard) "cyders" and perries (made, of course, from pears). The biggest shock was our first taste of British beer this time – it tasted like dishwater. I guess you get spoiled in Germany; although the fact that the British serve their beer warm might have had something to do with it.
We saw a couple of plays, had some ethnic – even English – food and Saturday took the boat train to Southampton. One could get spoiled by the service – when the taxi arrived at Waterloo Station, the driver told a porter we were going on the QE2. The porter unloaded the luggage and we got on the train – first class, with cocktails and snacks. We boarded the ship and went to our cabin, to find the luggage waiting. The cabin was more spacious than we had expected; although it was on the lowest level, we had a porthole. (Betty Lou found a great QE2 deal through SATO: if you signed up at least a month in advance, you were guaranteed a room for $900 per person. However, the class of room wouldn't be known until a week before sailing. Theoretically it could be a suite with balcony or an inside room below the waterline. Practically, I'm sure they would leave the elegant rooms vacant unless they were the only ones remaining, but they also wouldn't be stingy with outside rooms if they were available. MITRE would pay up to the equivalent of tourist airfare, which was enough to pay for the entire trip from Frankfurt to Washington.)
The food was fantastic, although the service was sometimes lacking. (A British lawyer we dined with said that the conglomerate that bought Cunard has been making changes. In fact, they've recently threatened to change their registry to Panama (!) if they aren't allowed to decrease their ratio of British to non-British personnel.) We never did make it to the midnight buffet, although we did, at various times, try five of the other daily meals and snacks. They also had shows: singers, dancers, show tunes, all backed up by an orchestra; comics, and a magician. And each bar (Theater Bar, Midships Bar, Yacht Club Bar, Lido Bar, Queens Room Bar, probably some more I don't recall) had entertainment: a jazz or pop combo or at least a pianist.
They had some pretty good reasonably priced wines (the brochures, once we translated them from German, had bragged about their "cellar"). However, unlike a cruise we took to the Bahamas, where the price of mixed drinks decreased towards free port prices as soon as the ship reached international waters, here they remained at hotel prices. Actually, as I realized while trying to circle the ship by deck, the QE2 is more a hotel designed for a potentially unpleasant climate than a Caribbean cruise ship. The boat deck, necessary in case of disaster, is the only open deck running for any distance along each side. Towards the front it ends at a stairway leading to an observation deck that was always closed while we were at sea because of the wind. At 30 knots, the ship was the cause of much of it. Of course, there is an open deck at the rear with a pool, with another pool in an adjacent glass-roofed ... dining area!
Every level has large windows, so one can see all there is to see without actually having to go on deck. I can believe there were passengers who didn't venture outside the whole trip. One doesn't even see the ship when boarding and departing – the covered boarding ramps enter directly into the arrival and departure halls.
During the day, while not indulging ourselves in the dining rooms, we spent time sunning and reading on deck. Several times we heard the sonic boom of the Concorde passing overhead. There was a well-stocked library, and I read the latest Len Deighton spy trilogy. When somebody asked the librarian if they had any problem with books disappearing she said it was just the opposite – many people bring books and leave them to the library when they're finished!
Betty Lou used the Exercycle in the Golden Door Spa and found a few things to buy in Harrod's. We didn't go to the movie theater, but they had "Dances with Wolves," "Defending Your Life," and some others I don't remember. The TV included many recent tapes: "Russia House," "Kindergarten Cop," "Total Recall" and a bunch of others. The Gorbachev deposing and undeposing was a surprise; although we didn't have CNN, I guess they didn't have any more facts than the BBC shortwave world service broadcasts that we did receive. In fact, from what we heard afterwards, Gorbachev got his news from the same source!
The crossing was smooth – fortunately hurricane Bob was gone before we approached the U.S., although power was still out on Long Island when we arrived. The taxi got us to Penn Station with enough time to spare for us to enjoy the First Class Metroliner lounge for a while before the train left. Washington wasn't too hot or humid, and we settled into the Key Bridge Marriott. When Betty Lou appeared at the middle school where she had been assigned, they told her she'd been reassigned to a high school at the opposite end of the county from where we live! Except for the travel, it sounds like she'll be much better off there than if she had got in the high school where she had been before. That one has turned into a battlefield between a new principal and the teachers.
For me, it's almost like I never left. I'm in an office next to where I used to be, working with some of the same people on the same project. There are new (younger) faces, McLean-wide – a RIF cleared out some older faces. I was lucky to get an office – it's at the end of my department's spaces and actually belonged to another department. However, they only had one person in it and were hoping to put their microwave oven and coffeepot in the other half. They lost out – I imagine they're disappointed I took the place of their kitchen!
We haven't noticed substantial differences locally either, although I've heard that more lanes have been added to some of the roads. As for the house – about all I can say is that it could have been worse. The new carpet has stains in several places that, according to the tenants, were not removed by professional cleaning; the screened porch presently would provide scant protection from insects; a closet door has a hole in it; several light fixtures dangle from the ceiling by their wires; various plumbing fixtures don't work; and a mysterious water stain covers a downstairs ceiling and wall. When I mentioned some of the problems to a neighbor, he said he guessed that one could only have a certain number of keg parties for forty people before it would begin to show. It remains to be seen if a month's deposit is adequate for the repairs. I guess it's welcome back to the USA!