Sunday, November 4, 2012

London for the Night... and Back Home

Ah, the Zurich airport. OK, I was flying on points. (Lots of points.) I have my points with American Airlines – which is good because they partner with British Air, and not so good because they don’t partner with Alitalia, or anyone else who flies into and out of Sicily. I lie. American Airlines partners with Air Berlin, which has one flight out a day out of the Catania airport (only during tourist season). And it goes to Zurich. Where I could then connect to a British Air flight to London, overnight in London, and connect to another British Air flight to Los Angeles.

While British Air gives you a massive carry-on allowance, Alitalia (which I flew into Sicily) limits you to 8 kg. Air Berlin limits you to 6 kg. And that’s if your lucky – some economy class Air Berlin tickets allow for no carry-on at all, a factoid which made me think that Air Berlin was the equivalent of that Irish airline that offered standing room (well, leaning) on its short flights. Bargain Basement is what I’m getting at here. This was confirmed, somewhat, when I arrived at the airport and found that Air Berlin had all of two check-in agents (and no self check-in terminals) for its flight. Good thing I got to the airport early; I spent most of my time in line at the Air Berlin desk.

They were actually pretty cool with me on the carry-on. After all of my concern to get the damn thing down to 6 kg, the agent just gave it the “yeah, that’ll fit” visual appraisal, and sent me on my way. What was exciting was what they did with my checked bag. They originally checked it all the way through to LA. When I suggested that I might need my stuff in London, it required the attention of both gate agents to figure out how to check my bag only partway through. (To the annoyance, I am certain, of everyone else waiting in the check-in line.) I then told them, “Never mind, check it all the way through,” and broke in there to retrieve my toothbrush, toothpaste, and mouthwash from the “bathroom bag” in my suitcase.)

….. Oh hell, have I blogged about the mouthwash? OK, my dentist put me on some mineral-rebuilding mouthwash, which has the good sense to be tasty, so I’m actually using it. I had a set of nice little 3-ounce nalgene travel bottles, so I filled one of them with the mouthwash. Now, the nalgene bottles had good, tight screw-on caps. They also came with some spare squeezy dispenser caps. I replaced the screw-on cap with the screw-on dispenser cap, and packed it in my bathroom bag. This was a mistake. The screw-on cap doesn’t leak, but the dispense cap does. (In future: pack it with the screw-on cap and just take the dispenser cap along with it.) At our first stop in Italy I noticed the problem. I stopped in every “Farmacia” I could find, but nobody sold little travel bottles. I didn’t even have a spare baggy for it, so, in every city, I ended up wrapping the mouthwash in a shower cap – then tossing the mouthwash-filled shower cap in the next hotel, and wrapping it in a new one for the next city. We asked our tour guide if she had any idea where we could get more travel bottles – other than the Farmacia, she did not. But, in one city, she stopped in the Farmacia before I could get to it, and proudly presented me with …

… a urine sample tube. Look, it’s sterile, you can put liquid in it, and it has a cap. A pretty good cap, too, I reckon, on the theory that nobody wants to spill urine all over, well, anything. That night, I transferred some mouthwash to the urine sample tube. It only took about two uses of mouthwash, but lowering the quantity in the travel bottle made it leak somewhat less.

So, fast forward back to the Air Berlin desk at the Catania airport, when I’m removing my toothbrush, toothpaste, and my tube of “blue pee” and putting them in my carry-on (and my “carry-on liquids bag.”) I tell the agents at the desk to go ahead and check my bag through to L.A., but now they can’t. They’ve realized that I’m overnighting in London, and apparently, the system now doesn’t want to leave my bag overnight somewhere in the depths of Heathrow. It finally gets all sorted out – I’ll have my luggage in London (good thing, too, as I’d forgotten to retrieve the deodorant) and they can go back to helping the irate line.

And then I make it to Zurich. (Zurich is not on the Euro, a fact of which I was unaware. Took me some time to figure out what the exchange rate is for Swiss Francs, so I knew how much I was being overcharged. Also hoped like hell that I’d told my bank that I’d be in Switzerland, so that they didn’t freeze my credit card the moment I bought that sippin’ chocolate.) I was in the airport for a couple hours, during which time I was on a mission – for gloves. (A scarf I could do without, but I totally needed gloves to get through my planned wanderings in London.) I found gloves in the “Tie Rack” store. (Scarves too – but these looked like the pashminas you could get on the street for 3 for $10, and I’ll be damned if I’m spending $40 for one.) But gloves were a necessity. They had a bunch of wool gloves, and I found what looked like the cheapest pair. I went up to the saleslady and said, with no shame whatsoever, that I was looking for “the least expensive pair of gloves in this airport” and asked if these were it. She pulled them up on the computer and, indeed, they were the least expensive in the store. Then she gave me 25% off! I’m not really sure why she did this – the store had signs indicating 25% off if you buy 35 francs worth of stuff, which the gloves were not, but she gave me the discount anyway, bless her heart. (Go Switzerland!)

My flight was set to leave Zurich … well, it doesn’t really matter when we were set to leave, but we were set to land in London at 4:15. This was key. I had a theatre ticket for 7:30. I’d timed it out – if I left Heathrow for central London by about 6:15, I should make it. Train out of Heathrow leaves every 15 minutes, takes 20 minutes, another 20 minutes for the underground, a few minutes to walk to the theatre, a small cushion – yeah, 6:15 ought to do it. Of course, between landing and leaving for central London, I’d have to get through Immigration, get my bag, clear Customs, run to the airport hotel, check in at the hotel, run up to my room, leave my stuff, and run back to Heathrow. (With a bathroom break in there somewhere.) Two hours should surely be enough time, but when you’re relying on Immigration officials and baggage handling, anything could happen.

Or your flight from Zurich could be delayed. By about an hour. Now things were tight – we were to land at 5:15, which gave me just an hour to do all that stuff. I thought about cancelling the theatre ticket (as if Ticketmaster would give me my money back) but since it was still theoretically do-able, I decided to risk it.

Plane landed; I was sitting near the front of the plane, so I beat the crowd to Immigration. (My Business Class seat (lots and lots of points) should have entitled me to the “Fast Track” lane at Immigration, but the lane was closed. No problem, though, there was little wait at the normal lanes.) The nice Immigration officer stamped my passport right quick, and sent me off to baggage claim. No bags were yet coming down the carousel, so I took the ol’ bathroom break in baggage claim, figuring it would save me time at the hotel later. I was a bit nervous as I saw all the bags with “Business Class Priority” tags go by, without my bag appearing. Apparently, in all the confusion about whether to check my bag all the way through, Air Berlin had neglected to put on the Priority tag. But, eventually, the bag appeared. I threw it on my little baggage trolley and went in search of the hotel.

Let me explain how carefully I planned this. There are two hotels at Heathrow, and I had checked which terminal my flight arrived into, and made a reservation at the hotel attached to said terminal. Having found it (a bit of confusion there, but I’d read some details on an internet message board), I ran in. I outran another woman to the Reception desk. She was wearing a black coat and had a white scarf around her head. As I outran her, I was thinking, “Man, I hope I’m not outrunning a nun.” Of course, after having spent a very amusing dinner with the Catholic priest who had been unwilling to embarrass the dude sitting next to him by pointing out that said dude had taken his (the priest’s) bread plate by mistake, I figured that if she was a nun, she’d probably forgive me.

Got checked in, found room, tossed stuff in room. (Found underground card.) I was heading back to the airport at just before 6:00. I might make this!

Made it to the Heathrow Express area and found some guy unsuccessfully messing with the self-ticketing machines. The next train was leaving in four minutes and there was an open agent at the service desk, so I bought my ticket from him. By now the train was leaving in three minutes. Agent told me “you’ll have to hurry.” I hurried. I tore down there and jumped on the train. Time to spare.

I would arrive at Paddington station before 6:30, which was terrific, as it should only take about 15 minutes to get to the theatre. (I checked using the free wi-fi on the Heathrow Express.) Bakerloo underground line would get me there in 14 minutes; barring that, the Circle line would get me there in 20. With all the time to spare, I bought a to-go meat pasty at the station and looked around (in vain) for a cheap pashmina seller. By about 6:45, I moseyed into the underground station.

And discovered the Bakerloo line was closed.
So was the Circle line.

This was bad. I stared at the underground map (with big, important pieces missing from it) and figured out a somewhat roundabout way to get where I was going. Lots of folks in the station were doing the same – nobody really knew how to get anywhere (those were not the only line closures – just the only ones affecting me). Found my way onto the first train – I’d have to change trains at Earl’s Court station – which is both (a) out of my way; and (b) a station I’ve never been able to figure out.

Oh, and my train car was filled with zombies. Oh, right. Halloween weekend.

I get off at the zoo that is Earl’s Court. Six platforms with nobody knowing where the hell they’re going. I never ask for directions if I can help in, but I actually asked some people where a train was headed as I was about to jump on it on faith – and this would have been a bad move. I finally saw the signs that enabled me to get a handle on which platform I needed, and then found the right train. Checking my watch pretty much every two minutes as the train made its way to my destination.

I got off the train right near the theatre at 7:15. At which time it started raining. (Of course it did. I’d left my rain hat and umbrella in the room, as had said “cold,” not “rainy.”) There’s nothing for it – I just put my head down and walked right out into it. It wasn’t too bad. Got my ticket and settled into my seat with a good 12 minutes to spare. Victory!

Of course, I had to repeat the whole thing in reverse headed back. More zombies on my train. (Full marks to the Natalie Portman Black Swan zombie, who had the eyebrows perfect, and the Joker zombie, who actually didn’t need additional white face paint to make himself a zombie.)

Back at the hotel, I had to completely repack all my luggage. (Again: grateful that Air Berlin did not check my checked luggage all the way through. I’d bought some olive oil in the Catania duty free – which is fine in your carry-on as long as you’re connecting flights within the secured zone, but since I’d left the airport for the night, I was pretty sure my way-bigger-than-3-ounces bottle of olive oil had to be relocated into checked baggage.)

And my urine sample bottle full of mouthwash? Leaked.

Final comment for the curious – I mentioned (a couple posts ago) being sent back to the Lounge as my flight home was delayed for some sort of Engineering issue. The issue, the pilot ultimately explained, had to do with the bathrooms – and, as he pointed out, on a ten-hour flight, limited bathroom usage changes from a “convenience” issue to a “safety” one. They’d stopped boarding in the middle of the boarding process as they isolated the issue down to the lavs near the boarding door, and couldn’t fix it with all the passengers coming in. So, those already on the plane had to sit and wait on the plane, while those not-yet-boarded were given the run of the terminal, or sent back to the lounge.

And I’m finishing up the text of these entries from the flight home – so’s I can post them upon arrival. And now: sleep.

Taormina and First World Problems

OK, back to Taormina. There were some sights to see in Taormina, most notable a Greek theatre (with what I might call a Roman overlay – the brickwork is all Roman). Has a great view of Etna through the columns, so, you know, it's all good.

Indeed, Taormina is all abour the Great Views. Half the pictures I took there were with the thought “this will be my new wallpaper.” Lovely, lovely views.

You can see the former monastery/hotel where we were staying in this one.  It's that large tannish complex over there on the hillside.

I think this next one was taken from somewhere near the Greek theatre complex.


Taormina is also about the shopping. They had a main street about a half mile long with all sorts of shops – ranging from crazy high end Italian fashion, to guys in the side streets selling the usual All Things Sicily crap. We had a few evenings free in Taormina, and I walked from one end of that street to the other multiple times (scouting for gifts, comparison pricing the gifts, buying the gifts, looking for restaurants with free wi-fi, and, of course, finding the best gelato shop – a girl’s gotta eat … gelato). I try to buy myself something small – like a scarf or a pair of earrings – to remember a trip by. In this case, I got some earrings made out of lava from Mt. Etna. Which I adore. Because, you know, lava from Mt. Etna. :)

It was while at dinner the second-to-last night (at a restaurant with pasta and free wi-fi) that it hit me that I was going to overnight in London on the way back, and that I hadn’t really checked the weather in London. Even with my Crappy American knowledge of geography, I realized that London’s rather more northern climate would not be as awesomely mild as things were there in the Mediterranean. I cranked up on my phone, and read the bad news: nights in London (and I’d be trying to see a play – so would be out at night) were down to about 33 degrees. And here I was in about 66 degrees, wearing the only blazer I’d brought, and I was feeling a bit chilly. Great. I had to deal with a 30 degree drop in temperature. I started wondering if I could layer my yoga pants under my jeans.

Yes, I know, total First World Problem.

I have this theory, though, that if you can solve a problem by throwing money at it, it isn’t really a problem. (Yes, I know: total First World Solution.) Here I was with a half mile of shops just waiting to sell me stuff. Surely I could find something warm to buy.

As it turns out, I could. The real trick was in finding something warm to buy which wasn’t either: (1) some crazy expensive designer thing; or (2) something I’d never wear again. I mean, sure, they had nice $200 down coats for sale, but I live in L.A., and have more than enough down to satisfy my limited down needs. (If only I’d packed it.) On what must have been my 8th trip down the street (having just bought the lava earrings) I spotted a Benetton. Oh, Glory Be! They had a nice display of sweaters for about $35 each. (I asked the limted English-speaking Italian salesperson what they were made out of, you know, “the fabric?” She looked at the label from ten minutes and came back with “Croatia.” Ah, fabric/fabricated, logical mistake. We eventually got to “100% wool,” which led quickly to “sold!” – because a $35 thin(ish) wool sweater would save my ass in London and, indeed, could be used again in L.A.

I wanted to accompany this with a nice thick knitted scarf from one of the All Things Sicily places. It had no price tag on it, which meant I had to ask the salesperson, who came up with “40 Euro.” (That’s about $53.) Seeing as I was hoping to haggle her down from about 15 Euro, this was no good, and I told her it was way too expensive. She immediately offered it for 35 Euro, which was, really, no closer to an acceptable ballpark, so I left. She was calling after me, saying what a great scarf it was, as it was all handmade. Lady, I’m never going to wear it again – show me where they’re selling the cheap machine made knockoffs.

I never did get a scarf, but figured I could solve the rest of my London wardrobe issues in the Zurich airport.

But first, sunset over the Med...