Periscope Depth

london part two

(These posts are arranged by impressions, not chronologically. Viewer discretion is advised)


  • Virgin Atlantic babies its travelers with amenities. Everyone gets the seat-back screen with a catalog of movies, TV episodes, music and knock-off video games. Everyone gets the plastic bag with the eye mask and the footie socks. Everyone gets blankets and pillows. But you still have to pay extra to sit in the exit row*. Which is why Virgin changed our seats from their original row to the exit row when we checked in, only to change them back by the time we reached the gate. Virgin must have found a sucker, I guess.

  • None of these amenities address the fact that I’m a 77-inch man trying to curl up into a space that’s no longer than 60 inches in any one direction. If you’re on a red-eye flight to London, you have to sleep on the plane or else you’ll lose the best part of the first day. But I can’t recline any farther from the seat in front of me, since it can recline back as well. I can’t curl into the fetal position: my feet slide off the seat. I can’t quite lean forward, since the seat in front of me has reclined to where I can’t duck my head under it. I can’t lean against the bulkhead; there’s an armrest in my way. It is the “little-ease” of Camus’s La Chute or Iraq interrogators. I squirm and contort until my brain shuts down from fatigue. I wake up with at least two limbs numb.

  • “Welcome to Heathrow Airport. The local time is 7:45 AM. You have a thousand-yard walk from the terminal to your next stop. We will keep an eye on your baggage at all times. Our national language is English with a slight Indian accent and our national font is Helvetica. Please allow sixty to one-hundred twenty minutes for immigration inspection, depending on the quantity and surliness of customs inspectors. On behalf of the Labour Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition Conservative eh, sod it British Government, welcome to London.”

  • I love the London Underground. I would compare it to Boston’s subway, the T, but Boston would lose in every respect save price. This doesn’t surprise me. The Tube serves a dense urban population of seven million; the T serves a suburban population of four million at less than a tenth the density. I would wager the Tube also draws a greater share of tax revenue than the (notionally) private corporation which runs the T. The Tube has to be good, or London would die. Anyway, you can’t knock the results: clean, fast, frequent trains that take you anywhere in the heart of the city. Several stations employed people whose job it was just to stand on the platforms and announce the train service every two minutes. Men in smart uniforms broadcast that there’s “a good service” on the Jubilee line today, the way someone might say there’s “a good madeira” that the sommelier just opened. Compare this to the MBTA, for which mumbling “portah, changeheahforcommutahrail, thisabraintreetrain, braintreetrain” is often too much effort.

  • The flight back to Boston (SPOILER ALERT: I returned) was comically bad. First, by checking in at separate kiosks (just swipe your passport, guv’nah!), Misch and I lost our adjacent seats. My boarding pass wouldn’t print out, leading us to talk to three separate check-in agents. “You must have checked in online,” one of them guessed (incorrectly), scrawling something on my pass. This scrawl must have meant SEARCH THOROUGHLY, as I was randomly selected for a pat-down when we reached the gate. We boarded only after standing in an unventilated annex for twenty minutes, separated from the gate waiting area by secure glass doors. These doors, propped to ventilate some air, would give off piercing sirens and swing closed if left open for more than five minutes.

  • But the flight itself was fine.

  • Tomorrow: British food and people.

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* Charging people extra for the privilege of being responsible to help open the exit door in an emergency landing strikes me as at least bad business ethics and at worst a terrible incentive structure. And yes, I know why the exit row is so desirable – as a man who’s more leg than torso, I know – but that’s a side effect of its necessary function. I want the people sitting in the exit row to be brawny altruists who pay attention to every pre-flight safety lecture, not gangly travelers with more money than sense.