I'd booked our Eurolines coach tickets when we were in DC. The price was such that I couldn't pass the tickets up (less than 50 GBP, round trip, for both of us). So in a zealous act of rebellion ("Take that, Eurostar! We don't need your 500-GBP-per-person Chunnel!"), I booked us an overnight coach. It departed London at 11:30 PM and arrived in Brussels at 7:45 (a little over 7 hours with the time difference factored in) which seemed like the easiest route; we'd take a coach to the ferry, fall fast asleep, and when we awoke, we'd be in Belgium! Right?
Our first hiccup occurred before we'd even left Oxford. We leisurely dawdled around formal dinner at Brasenose, socializing with friends, laughing, talking, enjoying the wine and three-course meal. By the time we boarded the Oxford Tube at High Street, it was 8:45. We knew that it took around 100-120 minutes to get from Oxford to London, and we knew the Tube dropped us off directly at our point of departure, so even if it took the full 120 minutes, we'd have more than enough time to board our coach. Right?
We were set to depart for Brussels from Victoria Coach Station, and the Oxford Tube stops at Victoria Station. I knew enough to understand those two stations are not the same, but I had not considered the possibility that the two stations would not be connected in some way. So when we stepped off the Tube at Victoria Station -- right on time, at 10:45 -- we were quite surprised and more than a little frazzled to realize Victoria Coach Station was nowhere in sight.
But then, a sign!
We noticed a somewhat haphazardly-placed sign pointing in the general direction of Victoria Coach Station. The area was dark, very crowded, and worst of all, under construction (construction is among the list of top 10 things I hate to encounter while traveling, second only to scaffolding).
We dodged through the crowd, weaving in an out of slow-walkers and sidewalk-pausers (and trying not to scowl as we passed them) until we reached a somewhat residential area of London. By this point, it was 11:00 and we were getting frustrated, stressed, and discouraged. Joe suggested we do something I hate to do: ask for directions. Much to his surprise (and mine, actually), I didn't even hesitate before pushing my way into a nearby hotel lobby and asking the receptionist how to get to Victoria Coach Station. "Go out the door, turn left, and walk until you see the stoplight. Cross the street and you'll see it on your right", he told me. "Thanks so much, have a good night!", I shouted on my way out the door. Joe and I, backpacks and all, jogged down the street according to the helpful man's directions. We didn't seem to be going in the right direction at all, but I trusted this man, in part because he looked just like the bellhop in That Thing You Do. Thank goodness I trusted him, too, because his directions were right! We came upon Victoria Coach Station with 15 minutes to spare. Proud of our success, we breathed a sigh of relief and entered the station, ready to finally relax. We checked the departure screen and saw that our 'gate' was number 19. "Great - it's all downhill from here!", I encouraged Joe with a smile. And that's when we noticed the sign next to the departure screen: All Eurolines passengers must check in 60 minutes prior to boarding.
"Well, they should have put that on our tickets!", I screamed to Joe.
Indignantly, I looked down at the tickets I held in my hand. "All Eurolines passengers must check in 60 minutes prior to boarding.", it read.
"Oh. Never mind."
Suddenly, our 15 minutes to spare seemed like 15 seconds. We ran -- ran -- through the station, which was deceptively big. To make matters worse, Gate 19 was the furthest gate from the entrance. We made it to the check-in counter around 11:20 and saw at least 50 people in line, waiting to board a coach to Paris, as designated by the giant screens above the counter. A few weeks ago, when we were at the Dublin airport, a harried looking man asked us if he could "jump the queue" and we obliged him. He thanked us profusely; he had to flight to catch and because we let him in front of us, he was able to make it. We were happy to do so -- we had more than enough time go kill -- and I mentioned to Joe, "I hope someday if we ever have to 'jump the queue', the people we're jumping ahead of are this understanding."
For someone who fears admonishment as much as I do, 'jumping the queue' may as well be a federal crime. But we had to do it.
Thus, I approached two young men standing in the very front of the queue and smiled my most persuasive smile. "Is there any way we could jump the queue? Our coach to Brussels leaves in 15 minutes." Smiling back, they graciously accommodated me, stepping aside as I motioned for Joe to join me. We got our boarding passes, I thanked the nice young men a dozen or so times, and off we went! "Okay, Joe, it's all downhill from here.", I assured him.
Waiting to board the coach, I asked our driver -- a Dutch man who looked exactly like Billy Bob Thornton -- how long until we board the ferry. I knew we were riding a coach to the ferry, but when I booked the tickets, I imagined taking a quick coach ride to the ferry boat, sleeping a full 6 hours on the ferry boat, and then a taking quick coach ride from the ferry to Brussels. I guess I could have, I don't know, looked at a map to realize this was geographically implausible but I didn't; it wasn't until I was standing in line to board the coach that I realized: we'd be on the bus for 2 hours, would then step off the bus to go through UK customs, would then proceed through another line of customs, only to re-board the coach, wait an additional 45 minutes in line to drive abroad the ferry, step off the coach and find a seat on the ferry, spend 2 hours on the ferry, board the coach again (parked on the ferry), and then drive off the ferry and ride another 2 hours until we arrived in Brussels.
In other words, we would not be sleeping.
I don't really want to talk about the rest of the night because I'd really like to erase it from my memory. We were tired, we were delirious, we were disoriented, we were frustrated -- we were all the things you don't want to be when you're stuck on a bus with 40 strangers. Mostly, we just wanted to be in a bed. Laying down. Sleeping. With our contacts not in our eyes. (Okay, maybe that one was just me).
Also, our bus driver (Billy Bob) was playing Ice Age (pronounced Eye Sage, if you're my 3-year-old niece) on the coach TV and kept putting the coach in park at stop lights to get up from his driver's seat and scrub the TV screen. The light would turn from red to green, but BBT would still just be standing, coach in 'park', furiously wiping down the screen as though his job (and life?) depended on it.
There were also several road signs pointing to 'Channel Tunnel Chatham' and each time we passed them I swore -- swore -- they said Channing Tatum.
Joe didn't sleep on the coach ride to the ferry, or on the ferry itself. I did (albeit uncomfortably). So when we re-boarded the coach around 5:45 in the morning, Joe had been up all night, and he wasn't very happy about it (to say the VERY LEAST).
Thankfully, he slept the 2 hours from the dock to Brussels. Otherwise our marriage might have been in jeopardy (more than it already was).
I will have a lot more to say about Brussels on Monday. And good news: it won't be stressful at all!
Actually, it will be little bit stressful. But just a little bit.