It wasn’t looking good. The British Airlines gate agent was very apologetic, but there was “something wrong with my documents”. “Documents” being a shorthand for “passport”. This is not what you want to hear when you’re 90 minutes from boarding a plane to the world’s largest and most absurdly colorful audio show.
I don’t travel enough, clearly. That’s what I learned there, wondering what I was going to do next. If I had traveled more, I would have known that you need at least three months remaining on your passport to visit certain places. Places like the European Union. Never mind that the passport is perfectly valid for those remaining months. Valid, yes; it just cannot be used to travel. “Um. How did I get into the UK, then?” I asked, wondering why no part of my ticketing process flagged this “rule” as potentially catastrophic to planning — I can purchase the flight, but I cannot actually take the flight. How convenient. “Oh, the UK? Yeah, they could care less,” I was told. Alrighty then! If Munich wasn’t on the menu, how about an impromptu trip to Scotland?
It did occur to me then that had I needed to address this before boarding in DC, I probably wouldn’t have made it to Europe at all. The idea of traveling to the State Department and navigating those hoops to secure a passport for same-day (or even near-term) travel left me a bit weak-kneed.
In any event, I really don’t get this, but as I stood there undercaffeinated and pretty sure that I had just irretrievably screwed up my visit to High End 2019, I did get to wondering. Perhaps there’s some sort of concern that visitors to the EU will vanish into the countryside, like something out of Grimm’s fairy tales. Maybe there’s been a rash of such things. Over the years, hundreds of Americans have suddenly faded into the European scenery, with only their great teeth and total ignorance of the local language to give them away.
Or maybe the worry is that visitors would overstay in order to mooch off the socialized support systems. Short-term mooching is perfectly okay, but perhaps more than 3 months is completely unsustainable. It’s as if they’ve looked into American politics long enough to know there’s really no chance Congress is going to pay back the loans taken from Social Security, and so there’s a real risk with long-term “vacations” in Europe.
My favorite split-second fantasy was that it was a personal health thing — that visitors would consume too much Belgian chocolate, German beer, and crispy pork knuckles, and then just be too fat to fly home. Mmm, crispy pork knuckle. After my last visit, I completely understood why this worry would tempt some to seek government regulation. But, truth be told, the amount of self-inflicted culinary damage one can do in 3 days, much less 3 months, is so significant that I’m not persuaded.
Whatever. The EU wasn’t having it and the BA rep was as perplexed as I was. I could stick around (and tour the UK — which, quite frankly, sounded better by the minute), fly home, or pursue Option 3: visit the US Embassy.
Let me take a step back a moment.
I had thought that breaking my Eastward travel with a layover in London would be just brilliant. Direct flights to Munich from DC were coming up as $1,600 for a roundtrip ticket back in February, but a pair of roundtrip tickets — one from DC to London, and another from London to Munich — would be less than half! That, my friends, is a good deal. So, I could either stumble around Munich in a fog of jetlag (all flights seem to be red-eye flights, leaving late at night and arriving the following morning, usually with me arriving with a maximum of about 4-5 hours of sleep) or stumble around London, or Dublin, or Paris, or any of the other hub-cities in Western Europe. In a fog of jetlag. Why not spread myself around a bit?
I knew enough from my last trip that the first day of West-to-East intercontinental travel is a total wash — no matter what you do, you’re going to spend the day punch-drunk and confused, and you’re going to stay that way till you finally go to bed and enjoy a decent bit of coma. So, I knew enough to have had a buffer-day planned into the trip. I’d arrive, do whatever I could to stay up, eventually fail, and the second day would be better. I chose London for my layover primarily on price. Apparently, the joys of Brexit were doing wonders for travel incentives.
I arrived in London, and suprisingly, it was raining. I went to my hotel and stared at a wall for a few hours, chugging coffee after coffee after coffee. I figured that it was worth a shot. Then, I was to go in search of Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace. And a pint, with some fish-and-chips. A plan!
The buses around the airport were free, so after nearly being killed because the bus was on the wrong side of the road, I took one back to Heathrow, and then caught the LHR Express to Paddington Station. I think that trip took, what, 15 minutes? Brilliant start!
I then wandered about the London tube system for 30 minutes trying to figure out WTF I was trying to do next.
Note to self: Londoners are far too polite to not help you when you’re wandering around in a fog of jetlag, so ask for help frequently. Apparently, I was just pathetic enough to be worth intervention.
I eventually navigated my way to the Abbey. It was raining again, but I — being wise in the way of English weather — had my brelly.
So, Big Ben is currently under scaffolding. Bummer. Much of Westminster is too. Bummer. As is Buckingham Palace. I am forced to conclude that the constant rain is melting this city. This is also my explanation for Brexit. Everyone in England loves Brexit. At least, they love talking about it. And occasionally holding up wonderful signs expressing their jubilation.
Disappointingly, I was unable to brandish a camera inside the Abbey. I was, however, very politely invited to purchase some professional photos in the gift shop.
I did my touristy thing outside. But on the inside, I will offer that the number of notable dead crammed into that building is astonishing. And yes, it is every bit as amazing on the inside as it is on the outside.
That massive caffeine injection pre-bus was probably why I remembered to buy some trinkets for the kids.
After the Abbey was the Palace, but before that was food. Off to find a “good” fish and chips shop!
Note to self: next time, don’t bother. There’s really only so much you can do with fried fish and potato wedges, and the fish and chips that I’ve regularly enjoyed at restaurants all over North America are every bit as on-par (or better) than what can be had in London. Sorry, London.
I then went in search of a pub to have me a pint, and as luck would have it, the sun was out. As this was also after 5pm, this meant that all of the pubs were full. All of them and very full. So full, in fact, that in front of every pub, the pubsters had spilled out into the street. After bypassing three pubs I had assumed to have no room, I figured something was up — I’m told that’s this “spillage” is a regular thing. Echoes of Bourbon Street in New Orleans, apparently; that’s a London pub in the afternoon on a day when it isn’t pissing at that exact moment. Not what I expected. And no, photos are not welcomed.
A long stroll through St. James’ Park took me eventually to the Palace. As palaces go, it’s a right big building. Way off in the distance — the gates are at least a football field away from the doors — I saw a couple of Nutcracker soldiers standing very still. I took some snaps and found a cab.
The following morning, somewhat refreshed from a slightly longer bout of unconsciousness, Tripus Interruptus and the Adventure of the Not-Quite Expired Passport, I got to revisit London. This time, with all of my luggage.
I probably could have found a locker there at Heathrow, but that would have required a level of optimism that I didn’t actually possess. I had visions of being trapped in the US Embassy — for months — because All Of The Movies said that this would be a nightmare visit of Homeric proportions.
My gate agent, very helpfully, Googled my “flight plan” down to Vauxhall for me, and I was sent on my way with the promise that, “if I ever got this sorted”, she’d cheerfully rebook me. I asked if anyone had ever gotten it sorted, to which she said “oh, sure”. I asked if anyone had ever gotten it sorted in time to fly that same day, to which she just shrugged, wished me good luck, and shooed me out of her booth.
The trip to Vauxhall was not nearly as quick or smooth as the trip the day before, of course. The LHR Express to Picadilly wasn’t operational, so “Regular Tube” it was. That mean 90 minutes of travel, each way.
A couple of tube stops, a nice stroll by the river, and eventually, I was back in the USA. Sort of.
As a citizen, I was able to skirt the visa lines. I was not, however, able to bring my luggage. That meant another detour. An enterprising coffee shop was offering “bell stand” services to hold luggage for £10, but that also came with a delightful cup of coffee. Divested and caffeinated, I was invited over the moat, past the large men with the Very Large Guns, and was swallowed by the enormous 21st-century digs of the Great American Consulate.
45 minutes later, I had my new passport and was on my way. Seriously. I’ve spent longer at the Moter Vehicles Administration attempting to drop off an expired license plate. This would NOT HAVE HAPPENED in the States.
It was late morning by this time and, all in all, I was feeling a bit surreal. The Men with Guns had some cheerful suggestions on my next step:
Guard #1: “Oooh, yah, there’s great curry down the lane.”
Guard #2: “He probably wants Asian. You want Asian?”
Guard #3: “When in Rome, you know. How ’bout some nice fish and chips?”
Guard #1: “Nah, rubbish — it’s curry for sure. He can handle the heat. Look at ‘im!”
Guard #3: “It’s not too early for a pint …” (This sounded wistful.)
Guard #2: “Just a tube stop away. Fantastic noodles.”
I could have stood there all day with these three. My own Monty Python skit. Did I mention the Giant Guns? Oh, another odd fact — I heard not a single American accent during my entire experience at the Embassy. The Americans had probably all vanished into the countryside.
In the end, I opted to head directly back to LHR and try to get rebooked into Munich, and just grab a bite at the airport. While the British Airways lounge was awesome — meatballs, bourginon, noodles, salad, bread, and all the wine I cared to pour into my face — I suspect that I really should have gone for the curry.
I hit the ground in Germany too late to make it to the show for the Thursday “trade day” — the pre-show day reserved for press and trades-folk (for those business-to-business connections & meetings). Disappointing, but hardly unexpected at this point. But I did see signage all over the airport, which is amazing. And signage on the street.
And there was a chartered bus picking attendees up from the airport.
Seriously — for those of you US-based show-fans, going to a show is like vanishing into a cave. No one knows where you went. No one knows what you’re doing. No one can hear you scream.
In Munich, it’s clear you’re heading to Carnivale, and everyone in the whole damn town is invited — and coming. If my numbers are right, something north of 8k folks came on trade-day. Show managers reported that over 21k visitors came through over the weekend. I kid you not, it’s quite possible that Munich is larger — both in vendors showing and in attendees attending — than all of the US-based audio shows combined.
That first night, safely arrived and in the care of friends, my only clear objective was beer and pork. If this is your objective, and most Americans would agree that this is a fine objective as well as a generally acceptable set of Life Goals, Bavaria has your bench ready and waiting. If you’re a vegetarian, on the other hand, I cannot recommend a trip to Bavaria at all. I don’t think they have vegetables in Bavaria. I mean, are potatoes vegetables, really? I have no idea what my friends Stuart and Linette of HiFi Pig (side note and total PSA: they are doing just brilliant work with “women-in-Hi-Fi”, by the way — do check them out) do while in Munich, but I know it’s not schweinhaxn.
Over the weekend, I made it down to the Marienplatz several times for food (crispy pork knuckle, schnitzel, pretzels, pickled cabbage, giant dumplings, and gravy), beer (local, wheat, dark & light — and lots of it), and conviviality, which is probably what finally reset my internal clock and banished the jetlag. Or so I tell myself — that 10lbs of extra “carry on” weight I brought home is gonna be with me a while, so I’m actively looking for extra reasons I choose to pack it on.
High-End 2019 coverage is fully underway, so stay tuned for all that. Part-Time Audiophile was there for all of it — and we’ll be there next year. And the year after.
What an incredible show — we can’t wait to show it to you.