Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Brief Encounter with Leeds

Last weekend, we traveled to Leeds for Thought Bubble, a comics festival that had been highly recommended by some of our friends. We were nervous about leaving our kitty - this was the first trip away from home we'd taken since his health problems started this summer. Our cat-sitter is great with him and very responsible, but we still worried that he'd be stressed by our absence. However, we were excited to debut our new collaborative mini-comic, Flash & Bee: Best Friends, at the show - and to connect with fans and friends again after a while away from the comic convention circuit.

We flew into Manchester and took a train from there to Leeds. It was significantly cheaper to fly to Manchester - we've found that Europe in general has a lot of travel deals, perhaps because there are a lot of airlines, and the distances aren't too great so the train, bus, and air services are all competing for your business. Flying into Leeds from Berlin was quite expensive when we were looking, so we looked at a map for nearby cities, and then searched for airfare into those airports until we found the best deal. Combined with a super cheap advance train ticket online, we were able to travel for far less than a direct flight. And the hour-long train ride between the two cities was a great way to see the countryside in Northern England.

The disadvantage of flying on a budget is that you end up on carriers like Easyjet. They have amazing fares, but a very restrictive baggage allowance. You can only bring one bag onboard with you - not one bag and a laptop or purse as most airlines allow, really just one bag, and it absolutely can't exceed the size requirements. If it's too big, they put it below, and you have to pay pretty steep fees for hold luggage. So we spent a lot of time and energy on packing light. It was annoying, because working a comic con means bringing a lot of stuff. We really thought we'd done it though, until we got to the gate. The gate agent didn't like our overstuffed little suitcases (they didn't slide easily enough into their "your bag must fit in here" box thingy), and forced us to put them below, which meant we had to scramble to pull all of our valuables and electronics out in the middle of the airport. They did not ask us to pay a fee, though. We've flown on other budget airlines, like Air Berlin and Norwegian, and not had trouble with our luggage like on Easyjet. So we'd choose them over Easyjet if the fares were competitive. Also, sometimes the major carriers, like Air France, offer special deals that are on par with the budget airlines. So it's good to compare and not just assume Easyjet is the only option. Riding with Air France feels like first class after flying budget all the time.

Shannon had never been to the UK before, and it had been fourteen years since I was last there. After most of a year in Germany, we felt a little surprised to be surrounded by English signs again, and to not have to preface every conversation with "Sprechen sie Englisch?". We found right away that the British were very friendly. It's a misconception that Germans are unfriendly or rude - they can be more formal, and don't feel obligated to be friendly, but they are friendly if you have a good attitude. The cheerful hospitality of the British people we encountered is definitely a contrast with the frankness of Berliners. We found this right away on landing in Manchester - asking for advice at the train station, watching an older woman's bag while she got some tea, ordering a "flat white" coffee (coffee with milk) from the snack counter, and asking the conductor if we could change seats on the train.

The ride to Leeds was smooth and scenic. We watched the country roll by from our window seat. Low, grassy green hills were lined with stone walls and dotted with sheep, under gray skies and patchy spots of sun - when it managed to punch through the clouds. Clustered woods - tall and dark, damp and mossy - were broken up by brick villages with peaked roofs and spired churches.

Leeds is one of the biggest cities in the UK. It was a small market town until the Industrial Revolution transformed it into an important mill town. It suffered decay in the post-industrial era, but today it's the economic capital of the region. It's a hub of financial and legal services, has a very large shopping district, and is home to three universities (and thus, loads of students).

The train station was huge but easy to navigate. However, it took us a few minutes of bumbling around outside before we found the bus we needed (and no thanks to the snarky cop outside who basically made fun of us for asking where to buy bus tickets). From the window of the bus, we saw a very cute and very English downtown with historic character. Our hotel was on a more modern block of offices and stuff, though, on a broad avenue across from a cathedral. It was an Ibis budget hotel, so it was very spare and full of drunken weekenders, but it was clean and comfortable for a great price - £26 a night. The heater in our room was busted, though, and they never fixed it. They gave us a little electric space heater that worked just fine, however. The only other annoyance was that you have to pay for everything that's free at normal places - £1 for shampoo, £10 deposit (refundable) for a hair dryer, etc.

After the sun set, we took a walk past that cathedral and along The Calls. Around back of the church, we stumbled (literally) on these huge paving stones which were in fact old tombs, engraved with names and epitaphs of long dead patrons from past centuries. The stone was slick with rain and fallen leaves, lit dimly by orange lamps, and partly broken by tree roots, so we didn't even notice until we were standing right on top of them. Spooky. Very spooky.

The Calls is an old street that runs along the canal, and used to be industrial docks and warehouses and such. Then it was a slum, apparently, before now being redeveloped into a bar, office, and condo district. This leads into the center of the city. Our experience of the downtown center was of a small, very walkable city. The character of the architecture we saw varied between historic and modern. We loved the brick buildings and narrow cobblestone streets.

We ate dinner at a place called Cattle Grid near the Corn Exchange building. It had been well reviewed on Yelp, and we both liked the idea of a steak since we rarely eat meat. Unfortunately, the steaks here were pretty awful, and we regretted ordering them. Bland and chewy, really not worth the money at all. Maybe their burgers and sandwiches are better, but I definitely wouldn't return or recommend the place to anyone.

We made up for it by buying a bunch of cookies and snacks and stuff at a supermarket to take back to the hotel. It was fun to be in a supermarket where all the labels were in English. And this is another good budget travel tip - buy some groceries, like water and snacks, for your hotel room and you'll save a lot.

The convention started first thing in the morning. Thought Bubble is a smaller show, but distinct from most comic cons in that it focuses solely on comic books and creators, rather than media guests. So it has the flavor of a very large Artists Alley (the section reserved at most cons for artists and self-publishers). Next to our table was our good friend Christian Ward, so we had a great time catching up with him and meeting his wonderful fiancee Catherine. There were some big fans of Think Tank who came by, as well, and I was thrilled as always to meet them. Flash & Bee: Best Friends sold a good number of copies, too. Our favorite moment of the show, perhaps, was when a little boy dressed as Batman came by and made his dad buy a copy of Flash & Bee for him. He was so excited to hold and read it - we were both very happy to see that kind of reaction from a child!

On Saturday night, going to and from a convention party, we witnessed the weekend party scene in downtown Leeds. There's a big section of shopping centers and bars, and even by like 10:30 pm, it was filled with staggering, wasted clubbers and bar hoppers. Local college kids, out-of-towner Brits, and a few older people, none of whom seemed to be holding their liquor very well, were wandering the streets between clubs and molesting the fake plastic holiday reindeer.

We headed home on Sunday after an abbreviated day at the convention. We were going to take a water taxi from the convention center to the train station, but it was nowhere in sight, so we went to catch a bus down the street. The bus never showed up either, so we hoofed it across the river and made our train - just in the nick of time, as JRR would say. The train delivered us to the airport with plenty of time. However, we nearly got lost and trapped forever in the huge duty-free shop that is between security and the gates at Manchester Airport. It's as if they plopped down a massive Macy's in the middle of the airport, and there are no signs or arrows to help you navigate towards the terminal, so you have to walk through every section of perfume, booze, and clothing and get lost at least three times before you emerge bewildered at the gate area.

We got out and sat down in this middle lobby area. Our gate hadn't been announced yet, so we were looking at the departures board, waiting to find out. The signs said that gates 1-16 were to the right, and 17-32 were to the left. For some reason, we always end up having to walk to the very last gate, no matter what airport we're in. So we guessed that we'd probably be assigned to gate 32, inevitably. We even considered just starting to walk that way anyway, betting that we'd be down there somewhere. But we stayed put and were surprised to see that our flight wasn't at the far end, after all. Skipping along, enjoying our new-found freedom from our travel curse, we came to our gate number, confused by the arrow pointing downward. Unlike all of the other gates we could see, ours was, for some reason, downstairs on the tarmac level in a much colder, darker, and less pleasant sub-terminal dungeon. We laughed and looked at each other. "Of course."