Inserting yourself into the UK through London’s Heathrow Airport is always an interesting experience*. And so it was again last night. The landing is pretty much what you’d expect: a long runway with lots of lights, some buildings appearing in the distance. You know, just another airport. But then you taxi in and it’s altogether another world.
It’s like you’ve landed in a medium sized city and the pilot, who seems to have lost his map, decides to roam aimlessly in search of a suitable parking place. Having taken the day flight from Chicago, we are here at 10:30 p.m. It is dark and this adds to a growing feeling that I will quite possibly go missing, leaving my family and friends to forever wonder what happened to me. We wander around amongst a scattered collection of buildings, only a few of which actually look like they might be part of an airport. Warehouses, office buildings. Seriously, I think we passed two Kwik Trips. Or maybe it was the same one twice. After a while we approached a likely looking place - a long edifice with planes nuzzled up against one side like piglets at dinner time. But we passed it by and continued on into the night.
After stopping twice to ask directions, the pilot decided to pull in at the end of a sprawling building that looked more like a vacant strip mall than a terminal at a major air travel hub. But we deplaned (a term coined by Hervé Villechaize in the TV series Fantasy Island) onto a real, if not altogether stable, jet bridge. Really, the thing was rocking like a boat in a storm. The Tacoma Narrows bridge came to mind as I made my way towards the terminal, my hands pressing the wall for support.
The pilot had hoped to do better, I’m sure. But when you’ve been searching for as long as we had been, even the most remote of parking spots begins to look attractive. I figure it was a good two mile walk to the passport control area. Looking at the bright side, it was a chance get my land-legs back and to stretch out the various kinks that had settled in during the long flight.
I would eventually make my way to the arrivals hall where the thirty or so passport control desks were staffed by six people, only four of whom were in the area assigned to the 98% of us passengers who could not avail themselves of one of the special categories. On this night, that included a line reserved for “First time workers and students.” Perhaps procrastenation does pay off sometimes. A sign along the winding queue, one that would put many at Disney World to shame, assured us that the desks were being manned (or womanned as was the case at two of the stations) by “all available personnel.” Well, it was 11 p.m., so I suppose I shouldn’t begrudge the other 25 staff a little rest at home. Actually, the process ran smoothly and took just long enough that when I reached the baggage claim area, I found my suitcase lined up in one of the four neat rows of bags already removed from the conveyor by the helpful Heathrow staff. The British do like a nice, ordered queue.
Another half-marathon walk and I was on the platform of the Heathrow Express. “15 minutes (to Paddington Station) Every 15 Minutes.” True to their word they were this evening. Then it was on to the taxi platform outside the station where both the London cabs and prospective passengers have their own queues. The ensuing ride to the hotel was longer and more expensive than that on the Express, but I had arrived.
And there you have it; a mere 14 hours after waking up in La Crosse, I was settled in at the hotel on Old Street in the Shoreditch neighborhood which is within the borough of Hackney, possibly spilling over into Islington and maybe even into The City in east London**. With issues of geography still not wrestled to the ground, another battle begins: my internal clock, insisting it is only 6 p.m., versus the one on the nightstand showing it to be approaching midnight. Sigh.
* Heathrow is an amazing place. I have yet to grasp its overall layout, although I suspect it is a little more orderly than I have described**. The multitude of planes from all over the world that gather around the several terminals create a visual display as disjointed and visually arresting as a Jackson Pollock painting. This feast for the eyes is supplemented by the unending stream of people in what we would call costumes but what they simply consider as clothes. It is not unusual to walk around for a goodly period of time and not hear a word of English.
Those whose goal is to be whisked away through to their final destination hate the place. And while I do fall into the category of those not actively seeking travel misery, I relish the experience of going through Heathrow. Most of my experiences have not been that unpleasant. When problems do arise, there is often an exotic twist and you get the chance to become part of a most diverse community of displaced people now more or less sharing a common experience. Finally, there is always - always - a new story to add to your collection.
This is all easier to say after my trip from La Crosse which was, in nearly every respect, flawless. But I still mean it. Every word.
** A little time carefully studying a few maps and I could figure all of this out. But then it wouldn't be nearly as much fun, would it?