“There’s no place like home.” That’s what you say when you come home after a long absence. No, wait… that’s what you say when you’re still far away and clicking your heels together. “Home, sweet home” is what is said when you get there.
Well, we’re not there yet. But we are a lot closer than we thought we’d be on Christmas day. An early call to British Airways on the 24th netted us two seats on a flight to Seattle. We booked ‘em and threw all of our shit back into bags, and ran from the hotel like mad monkeys, waving our arms above our heads and screeching into the blue London sky, “Taxi! Taxi!”
The first cabbie that pulled to the curb didn’t take plastic. He said that only Radio Cabs accepted credit cards, but offered to take us to a cash point himself. We thought that would take too long, and as a Radio Cab was rolling to the corner at that moment, we sent him on his way.
The Radio Cab driver told us that a card swipe would cost an additional 12%, so we accepted his offer of a ride to the ATM. On the way to Heathrow, he regaled us with tales of bureaucratic ineptitude in his beloved London. His mum lives on a curve that never gets any salt when it snows. The lamp post outside of her house gets bent over by sliding cars. They keep standing the lamp back up, but won’t come grit the road when it’s icy. He’s afraid someone’s going to drive into her living room one day.
So, he went to the home store and bought a bag o’ sand. He says if it snows again he’ll go grit the corner his ownself. Rosie says he should send the county a bill. He laughs – without bitterness – and tells us a story about getting a speeding ticket while visiting Florida. His brother-in-law was driving.
We made it to Heathrow sixty pounds lighter, but in plenty of time. Out front, dressed in reflector vests were two men, metering the flow of travelers into the terminal. “What time’s your flight?” one asked. “Two-twenty,” I told him. He pulled aside the vinyl ribbon and let us in.
Walking onto the Arrivals floor was a little like taking a punch in the gut. A long serpentine line of passengers wound its way from way back by the reader boards, up to a much shorter row of baggage checkers. Another bloke – this one in a blue British Airways blazer – was metering entry into this line. “Have you checked in yet?”
“You’ll need to go to one o’ dem machines and check in first.”
The machine laughed at us, and told us that check-in was unavailable. Another BA helping hand listened to us explain and said, “When’s yer flight?”
“Where ya goin’?”
“Go to area A, please.”
“Alright.” I was beginning to sweat a little under my winter layers and my load of luggage. Rosie looked worried.
If they allowed crows into the airport terminal, one might fly from the check-in machines that mock passengers’ pain to area A and travel a distance of twenty yards. As we are not crows, we had to walk, dragging our baggage behind us, a distance of two touchdowns and a long field goal attempt – weaving in and out and around and through, sometimes under, but never over – to arrive at yet another queue, guarded by another reflector-vested man who asked more of the same questions and granted us entry into the coveted area A.
Once inside, we approached a rather disinterested chap who took our passports and dialed a phone while we waited behind the yellow line. We caught ominous snippets of his conversation, “Seattle flight… booked… two passengers… bags.” Okay, writing it down, it’s not as ominous as it sounded at the time, but our recent history with flying had taught us to be skeptical. And we were.
He beckoned us forward, took our checked bags, and handed us two boarding passes. “Sorry, but we’ve had to upgrade you. Seems the flight is full.” That’s alright, Sir. We’ll try not to be too disappointed.
At security, we found some items that we’d packed into the wrong bags and had to toss out a multi-tool and most of a 2-litre bottle of sparkly water. The lady at the check point was clearly having a bad day. We tried to be respectful and efficient. No one got hurt, and soon we were on the other side of the metal detectors, wondering how to spend our last seven pounds of British bread. The only reasonable answer was ale.
While we sat at the seafood bar, drinking, we tried to figure out how to use the free 45 minutes of wi-fi access advertised by Heathrow Airport to contact someone in Tacoma to pick us up at Sea-Tac. We couldn’t figure it out, so I went up to the BA lounge to beg access to their wi-fi (it’s separate from the airport network). The lady at the desk upstairs was elitist and smug, and completely unsympathetic. When I got back down the escalator, I had a bitter taste in my mouth and had to wash it down with another sip of London’s Pride. By the time my beer was gone, they’d posted a gate for our flight, so we decided to ask for help at that end.
We took a train out to the concourse, found our gate and plopped our carry-ons down in a couple of seats to await boarding. No one was at the gate to offer assistance, so I went asking at the one next door. There were two BA employees having a chat. I interrupted them. The round-faced lady wouldn’t let me finish explaining what I wanted. She kept cutting in to finish my sentences, or to tell me how it was that they couldn’t help because our flight was posted at another gate.
The tall, skinny kid with the nice slacks offered me his cell phone. “I just want to know how to access the free wi-fi” I said. Not understanding what I was getting at, he said there was an internet point that took 1-pound coins. I called him a dirty capitalist in my head. Rather than try to explain again, I accepted his cell phone and made a quick call to Paulie. I had to leave a message, but figured that was better than nuttin’. I gave him back his mobile, and we exchanged a few words about the relative value of our respective monies. “I don’t know what you think we make,” he said, “but we’re having financial trouble here too.”
“Yeah, I understand that.” I said. “But you still have the strongest currency on the planet. Every pound we spend costs us a dollar-seventy-three. It ain’t cheap to be stuck in London.” He said that he hoped someone was there to pick us up in Seattle and wished me a merry Christmas. I thanked him, wished him the same, and went back to my Rosie to wait for boarding.
Half an hour later, we were in queue to get on the plane. At the gate, the agent apologized and told us that we’d been upgraded (again?) to business class. “Hope that doesn’t disappoint. It’s one of the occasional perks of flying World Traveler Plus, I’m afraid.” I almost believed that it was a bad thing, so disillusioned had I become with the great British Airways. What was it with these guys and apologizing for being nice?
“Does my wife get upgraded too?” I asked. They let us both into the club.
On the plane, they offered us champagne while we were taking off our jackets and settling into our comfort-optimized sleeping pods. A guy offered to take our coats. We surrendered them and he smuggled them off to some closet that I never knew existed. We drank our champagne and discussed our new digs with unabashed giddiness. We weren’t mad anymore. We poked at buttons that raised and lowered our seats, inflated lumbar support pillows implanted under the upholstery, popped out viewing screens, and dropped down laptop trays or footrests. I caught the lady across the aisle watching us with amusement.
A flight attendant gave us lunch menus. Before we began to taxi, someone brought us more booze. We ordered appetizers: smoked salmon for me, salad for Rosie; and a main course: fish cakes, made with real crab, and a plate of veggies with a rich, warm sauce whipped into the mix. We didn’t have to take cellophane off of anything. They gave us metal utensils to eat with, cloth napkins, and more to drink.
Before they dimmed the lights (to encourage everyone to take a nap, like in kindergarten) someone stopped by each quarter-hour to ask if we wanted something else. We ate too much, drank too much, smiled at each other over the retracted privacy screen, and watched movies on the pop-out vid monitors. Somewhere in there, we did take a nap. The first half of the flight was magical, the best experience I’ve ever had at 30-thousand feet. The second half, I had to pay for my excesses.
A headache and mild turbulence worked together to whip up an uncomfortableness that sent me to the restroom every ten minutes or so, each time more certain that I was going to have to surrender all of that wonderful food and free alcohol. I’m not sure how I survived, but we did make it to Seattle. Once on the ground, everything was great again. I didn’t even mind standing in line at Border Control.
We got through and Paulie was waiting for us at the baggage carousel with his new girlfriend. We exchanged embraces. When he tried to let go, I hung on. It just felt so damn good. It felt like coming home. The new girlfriend, Erin, hugged us too. Had we met her before? No. She’s just friendly. Fine by me. Friendly is a good character trait, and I was in a hugging mood.
We drove back to Tacoma, me in front with Paul, Rosie and Erin in the backseat. Paul and I talked politics. He’s in love with the new spirit of compromise that Obama has brought to D.C. I tried to convince him that the spirit isn’t new. It’s the same old compromise that leaves us wishing that they’d negotiated a better deal for us. He refused to be disillusioned, so we talked about his new construction business instead.
I had a moment while we were driving by the exit to 320th, when a temporal window opened up and I peered into our past, going through puberty together in Federal Way. I could clearly see the image of two awkward boys with ridiculous haircuts, riding in a green Dodge Aspen on our way to the ninth grade dance. Somewhere there’s a snapshot of the two of us, dressed-up and making faces in front of Illahee Jr. High. We’ve come a long way since then, but I still love him that much, with the same lack of shame.
It occurs to me that part of growing up is making friendships in a more reserved way. As we get older, it’s harder for us to invest so much in relationships. We become too aware of the dangers involved. If we are lucky, we find a partner that means as much to us as our teenage friends did, and we cling to them in the same way, and it hurts just as badly when we are apart from them. If we are really lucky, we get both.
By “we,” of course I mean me. I’m feeling really lucky this Christmas day. I’m glad to be home.