Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Long Slog Home

I've been home for a few days now, and have barely recovered.  

We start at the hotel.  They'd booked a car for me (50 Euros, no more, no less) and wanted to have it arrive at 7:20 a.m. -- this would, if traffic behaved, get me to the airport an hour and a half before my flight.  I told them to kick it up to 7:00, just to be safe.  (Probably should have gone earlier, but my desire for sleep was overwhelming.)

So, at 7:00 a.m., I'm in the hotel lobby with my stuff.  The driver is not.

Time passes.  More time passes.  The guys at the hotel desk keep telling me he'll be here "in a minute" -- I do not think this phrase means what they think it means.  He eventually shows up around 7:15.  I'm more or less livid, but would have been frantic if he'd been this late on a 7:20 pick-up.

We head to the airport.  A few minutes in, I notice the meter is running -- did he do a flag drop on a fixed rate trip?  I say, "This is 50 Euro, right?" and he turns off the meter.

(Aside:  Did anyone try to pick my pocket in Italy?  No.  Did anyone try to rip me off?  Yes.  In my two days in Rome, I caught two different vendors short-changing me.  Then again, there was also that merchant on Corsica who refused to accept my friend's coinage because it was Italian money rather than French.  Dude, they're EURO -- it doesn't matter where the coins were minted.  That's what a unified currency is.  I can't count that as ripping off, though, just being a dick.)

So, as we approach the airport, my cabbie asks me what airline.  Alitalia.  He asks if my destination is international; it is.  He says all Alitalia international flights leave from Terminal One (of the five-terminal airport).  He dumps me at Terminal One, takes his 50 Euro, and disappears into the day.  I go into Terminal One and do not see my flight on the board.  Odd.  I go the Alitalia check-in machine and try to check in for my flight.  It finds the reservation but will not let me check in.  Odd again.

You see this coming.  I was on about four hours sleep and did not.

The Alitalia rep comes by and asks if she can help.  I explain the problem.  She tells me the flight to London is out of Terminal Three.

Crappity, crap, crap, crap.

I grab my luggage and start booking down the sidewalk in front of the terminals.  As I round the corner into Terminal Three, it dawns on me that this little unnecessary burst of energy has pretty much used up my supply.  I'm on fumes now, and I haven't even boarded the plane.

I check in (the line is very long -- then I realize I'm in the wrong line; my line is shorter, but by the time I clear it, I'm running out of time).  I am checked in for my flight from Rome to Heathrow, but not from Heathrow to L.A.  I had noticed some British Airways check-in counters nearby; since BA was operating my Heathrow flight, I thought maybe I could get a boarding card from them.  But nobody was at their counters, and time was tight.

Went through security.  (The Rome airport has a separate security line for flights going to five destinations:  the U.S., Russia, the UK, Israel and ... something else I forgot.  In any event, this was clearly the "high security" line.)  We had to take all electronics out of our bags, but they didn't seem to care about liquids.

Made it into the terminal.  There was a place where they were selling food.  I needed food.  Badly.  There were three workers behind the counter; each one was handing food to people.  I got in the middle line.  I knew what I wanted and had the change in my hand to pay for it.  I got to the front of the line (ten minutes later) and the woman said something in Italian to me.  I did not understand.  She changed to English and said "pay first" and pointed me to the line on the left.  During this exchange four more people joined the line on the left.  I would never get my food before my flight.  Dammit.

Went to the gate.  A minute or two after I got there, they started boarding.  It was general boarding -- no concern about rows or anything.  This was one of those airports where you have to take a little bus out to the plane, and they were just filling busses and sending them on their way.  

The bus ride must have taken 20 minutes.  I shit you not.  I couldn't believe we were still in the airport; thought maybe we'd drive this thing to Calais and take a boat to England.

Finally got on the plane.  I had a center seat.  Was sitting next to some Italian dude.

Lance had commented, the other day, that there are no douchey guys in Italy -- when you see a guy dressed all in black with red shoes and expensive red sunglasses in the States, he's a douche; but when you see him in Italy, he's just Italian.  I was pretty much sitting next to this guy.

Best thing I can say about Alitalia:  Instead of a bag of peanuts, it's a bag with biscotti in it.  I downed that right quick.

Arrived at Heathrow; took the shuttle bus to terminal five; checked in...

OK, there were two reasons I chose British Air for this flight.  One:  little personal video screens in coach, so I could watch whatever I want; Two:  they have a "premium economy" section I intended to attempt to upgrade to.  I was unable to book an upgrade in advance (because I'd booked my ticket on Orbitz, rather than with the airline directly), so I was stuck with trying this at the airport.  Bad news:  No premium economy seats left.  Worse news:  Only center seats left.

I had a couple hours in Terminal 5 to prepare for ten hours cramped into a center seat on a transatlantic jet.  I approached my next two hours as an attempt to buy anything I could that would make the following ten hours survivable.  Mostly food items.  I got a peking duck wrap, a scone and cream, some Jaffa cakes, and a bag of pretzels.  I really wanted one of those overpriced airport massage places, but there wasn't one in Terminal 5.  Someone had really missed out on a business opportunity there, I thought.  You had thousands of people killing time between flights (often hours); you could make a killing with one of them overpriced airport massage places.

Terminal 5 has a billion gates, several are in satellite terminals -- B and C.  Signs tell you not to go these terminals until your flight is announced.  About an hour before my flight, it is announced that it leaves from Gate section B.  I take the little train over to section B.  Where I immediately discover the overpriced airport massage place.  Man, if any shop needed to be in the main terminal ...  I note their menu of services includes hour-long treatments.  How can anyone get an hou-rlong massage if they don't go to section B until their flight is called?  I'm telling you, the existence of this shop in section B is something I am seriously going to remember the next time I have three hours to kill in Terminal 5.  Between center-seat flights.

So, I've got about 30 minutes before boarding -- at least I can get a ten minute quickie neck massage.  Er, no, I can't.  There's one lady working the shop; her partner just went on break, and she is giving some guy a pedicure.  She'll be done in ten minutes, and there's a woman in line in front of me who is planning a 20-minute service.  Well, poop.  (At least I've saved the fifteen pounds, but still.)

Board the flight.  I am seated between a woman (on the aisle on my right) and a dude (in the center seat on my left) who are both Dutch.  Throughout the flight, they have many animated conversations in their native language over me.  I would have gladly traded seats with one of them (even the dude in the other center seat) to avoid this, but I hadn't realized this would be an issue early enough in the flight to offer.  

Full marks, at least, for BA's personal video screens, which had way more selection than American's did (on the flight over) and which let you start and stop the movies whenever you wanted.  (AA ran each movie on a schedule, so you'd have to wait until the film on channel 12 was restarting.)  I watched three movies (Paul, Green Lantern, and, X-Men First Class)  I am certain I must have slept on the plane, as I drifted off during the big ol' fight scenes in the latter two films.  (Did not mind as I'd see X-Men before, and Green Lantern was pretty stupid.)

The flight landed at 7:05 p.m.  I did not clear Customs and Immigration until 8:05 p.m.  I noted that, as a general rule, I wait longer at Immigration in the U.S. than in any foreign country I've visited.  Customs guy was a hoot, though.

Customs guy:  Anything to declare?
Me:  No.
Customs guy:  It says here you've got "food."
Me:  Yeah.  Chocolates, olive spread, honey ...
Customs guy:  You got any apples, oranges--
Me:  No, no.  Nothing like that.
Customs guy:  (continuing) -- meats, sausages, dope, dung, soil--
Me:  Wait a minute.  Did you just say dope?

What with Halloween traffic and all, I hit the door at 9 p.m. Pacific Time, some 22 hours after I'd started in Rome.  There was no food in the house.  But there was candy!

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