#UK2015 – 1. Cars and Planes

It had only been a year since my last visit to the old country, but it had been much longer since I’d really had a chance to look around. In addition to the cold wasteland of the North East of England, I’d also be checking out my long-held prejudices of other parts of this great island nation of ours—Edinburgh, lovely, historic, freezing cold; London, dirty, busy, expensive; Cambridge, never previously visited, but I knew it was old buildings, bicycles, and apparently random murders out on the quad, solved by beer-soaked and bitter genius detectives. Or that might be Oxford. Are they not the same place?

This was my first social media vacation. My wife and I reported regularly on Facebook and Instagram so obviously we needed our own hashtag: #UK2015. Only time will tell if it takes off, makes us international travel celebrities, and changes our lives forever.

(It did not.)

We’re international travellers of some renown, so of course we get someone else to drive us to the airport—I would Lyft everywhere if I could afford it. As I now work from home (no, really, it’s a real job, with benefits and everything), I have considered selling my car and just getting Lyfted wherever I want to go. My wife thinks this is not a sensible idea, and she has many sensible reasons, but these are all completely outweighed by the overpowering appeal of never having to drive again.

And then, of course, real life and politics got in the way of what I still think was a great idea on my part.

This will also be the subject of a future post about how we need self-driving cars right now, whether we or the technology are ready.

But I digress.

We are in the back of a nice lady’s large car being taken to the airport. It is November. The sun shines in Texas, as it almost always does. The radio station is playing obscure versions of familiar Xmas songs. We agree, with one silent look, that this is the First Important Thing to happen on our trip.

Our driver asks an innocent question: “What time is your departure?” The traffic on Mopac is heavy but we’ve left plenty of time. We’re OK. But our answer—”two hours until take off”—does something powerful to our driver and she applies the nitro boosters and her apparent previous career in NASCAR to get things moving. She takes the shortcuts, jumps the red lights, imperils other motorists, just so we get to the airport at the designated time. That’s American customer service.

At the airport, she apologises for not getting out of the car, and wants to talk to my wife as I get our worldly possessions out of the trunk.

They apparently have a menstruation talk while I drag our over-laden cases onto the curb. This is going to be a weird two weeks.

Austin airport is great. It has BBQ and relatively short lines and you don’t have to take a bus or a light rail to your departure gate. Once through security (the worst thing about all travel ever, or so I thought), you only have to walk 5 or so minutes past the families of every color, past the tall musicians carrying their guitar cases and wearing their Stetsons, past the gangs of old folks making noise and taking photos, past the shop workers who have had enough of your shit. And then you’re there: this is your gate. Sit down, drink water, charge your 20 gadgets at the free and plentiful terminals, and wait the two hours until things start moving again.

When boarding begins, Platinum, Gold, and Silver members board first. Then International Men of Mystery. Then Stone, Glass, and Recycled Waste members. Eventually, there are seven people left. We are too ashamed to look each other in the eye. We are “Everyone else”—and we board last. We are Scum Class. We try to slip on unnoticed while those already on board sip their champagne, unfurl their fur blankets, and choose from the extensive menu of endangered animals and space vegetables (I imagine).

My seat—if you can call it that; it’s more like a small plank across a tight space toward the back of the plane—smells funny. There’s no foot room. But the screen works. What did I expect for $3000? I settle in for the literal long haul. My wife unpacks her coloring books while I keep trying to find some amount of space for my reasonably sized feet.

In the end, it turns out that where my feet should go is taken up with a plastic bag containing most of an uneaten salad and my constant probing knocks over the salad dressing container, making everything in the cabin smell strongly of mayonnaise.

I have questions about what kind of people leave that kind of thing behind on a plane, and about how the “cleaning crew” can miss this in their sweep through of the cabin, but I keep these questions to myself.

Other than that, the trip is remarkably uneventful. Until we approach London.

We cannot land, we have to circle around and around Heathrow. We watch the little animation on our individual screens as our outsized plane sweeps toward the HEATHROW label and then turns away. It’s remarkably entertaining. I think Netflix should consider giving it a series.

We can’t land because, down on the ground, a crew is desperately trying to de-ice the runway. The runway we are trying to land on is an ice rink. And people with shovels, hair dryers, and kettles full of boiling water (presumably) were trying to clear it before we could land our heavy magic flying tube on the ground.

My flight-averse wife gripped her seat rests a little tighter. We circled for about 20 minutes, our reassuringly toned pilot letting us know what was happening, and then he just went for it. No warning, no gently worded explanation: one second we were circling, the next we were diving. We were rollercoasting toward the ground. I seemed to decide against breathing for the long, stretched out seconds it took to get from high in the sky to safe on the ground.

And then, as always, we were down, safe, and smiling.

I dreaded the long lines and unsmiling faces of passport control, but it was suspiciously easy to get through. I followed the staff member who seemed to be asking for people with animatronic passports to follow him. I waved goodbye to my wife and took the quick route to freedom. Don’t travel with me; I will leave you behind for the promise of a smaller queue and a quick walk to the open air.

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