Everybody say “U.K.”

I have never flown British Airways before and I must say that it was everything that I expected: cute accents, tea and biscuits, and a safety video as funny as Benny Hill. On BA they don’t make their stewards submit to carrying out an embarrassing pantomime about the unlikely event of a crash – World Travellers, Plus, Club, and First alike just watch a video on the in-seat telly. “In the unlikely event…” The British accent makes a world of difference. I am almost disappointed that the event is so unlikely. “…Make sure you are in the crash-ready position.” On the screen a computer-animated commoner in World Traveller class bends forward and protects her head with her arms. “And those in First Class sleeper berths should fold their arms like this.” The First Class traveller is pictured lying down, arms folded across his chest Nosferatu-style, as though any minute he will rise from the sleeper, stiff and straight as an ironing board. The voice asserts that all travellers are reminded to remove their high heels before flinging themselves onto the slide, and then I know some art director somewhere is having a laugh because we see the World Traveller woman step out of the plane onto the slide, followed by the First Class passenger, his arms still crossed over his chest like a zombie. Nobody else must be watching because it is my laughter alone that rises from seat 49A to fill the rear of the plane.

The flight to London from Toronto is just a bit too short. Yes, you read that right. Six and a half hours is long enough to board, have a laugh, have a bite, and fall asleep – for about 240 minutes. And then you’ve arrived in London where everything is the same but totally different, which can be a dangerous level of dissimilarity when operating on about four hours’ sleep. As I disembark, the flight attendant thanks me for flying with British Airways but her accent – like wind chimes, which makes me think she’s Welsh – completely obscures the words. I follow the signs but become confused when I see a corridor marked for those seeking asylum. I decide to ask, and the women at the gate raises her eyebrows and says, “Aye ‘tis a good thing ye asked! ‘Ad ye gone through this gate it would’ve been nigh impossible to get back.” She directs me to another queue. I am called to the front where a devastatingly handsome customs agent asks me where I am going. I tell him that I have a layover until my flight that evening, and that I am going to get a cup of coffee. “There is coffee on this side.” His manner becomes suspicious. “You don’t have to come through emigration to get a cup of coffee.” I tell him I am meeting a friend for coffee and his face darkens. “That,” he spits, “is a different story than you just told.” I decide to say nothing – the customs equivalent of rolling over onto your back to show submission – and after scrutinizing my passport, he lets me through to find Roxy and a coffee.

As I don’t have to pick up my luggage, I am at a bit of a loss as to where to go. I decide to find a bathroom and consider the matter. I follow the signs and quickly find a door with a woman figure above it. The door is monolithic. It is a single slab of polished wood with neither handle nor pushbar. From the safe distance of a few yards I inspect it, but cannot see how it opens. With a quick glance over my shoulder to make sure I am unobserved, I walk up to the door and stand before it, hoping that it will swing open to allow me passage to the toilets. I wait. I wave a tentative hand across the front, thinking it might be motion-sensitive. And then I leave, defeated by this example of fine British engineering.

I carry on down the hallway, and by this time almost all other people have left the terminal. I am mostly alone and I snap a few pictures of the interior of Heathrow, terminal 5. It is marvellous. Terminal 5 is the newest terminal at Heathrow and in places it is still under construction, but where it is complete it is an architectural love poem to human strength and that sassy British sensibility that brought us James Bond.

Metal men rise from the basement concourse to hold up the sky.

Metal men rise from the basement concourse to hold up the sky.

As I walked down this hallway, I could almost hear boom chicka wah wah and it made me swing my ass around a bit more than was necessary.

As I walked down this hallway, I could almost hear boom chicka wah wah and it made me swing my ass around a bit more than was necessary.

By this time, I really have to pee so I scan the sparse crowd until I find another uncomfortable-looking woman. Sure enough, she is surveying the area and soon heads off towards a doorway marked “toilet”. I quickly fall into step behind her, keen on gaining entrance by using her as a foil. She steps up to the monolith confidently, and places her palms on the door. She pushes it and it opens.

A few moments later I leave the toilets, relieved of my full bladder and my dignity.

I have a little over an hour until I’m supposed to meet Roxy, so I walk up to a man wearing a snappy uniform and say, “Excuse me – I heard a rumour that there are showers here in Heathrow. Can you tell me how I can get to them?” He smiles and replies, “Are you eligible?” I consider the matter. He is quite handsome and has an easy, open face. Then, “Show me your boarding pass.” I realize what he’s after and say, “Right – I am World Traveller class.” We each smile and shake our heads ruefully. “Yes, the showers are not for people like us,” he chuckles, plucking at the lapel of his uniform.

I find the Costa coffee kiosk where I had arranged to meet Roxy, order a large latte which instantly makes me nauseous, and settle in to wait. It is good people watching and the time flies. It is always odd seeing someone out of context, and when Roxy walks down the concourse I have that uneasy feeling of dislocation. We decide to leave the terminal and find a pub (what else?) The people at information claim there is no worthy watering hole between here and Hammersmith, so I buy my day pass for 7 pounds fifty and we get on the Tube.

I love the Tube. First of all, I love that it really looks and feels like a tube. It is retro and futuristic all at once, and you can’t help but mind everyone else’s business when your knees and rubbing against theirs across those impossibly narrow aisles. During our ride we catch up on soccer gossip, both hers (she’s regularly playing with a women’s pick-up kickabout group) and mine (Toronto’s August was more like Bali’s February and monsoon rains stole much of season; the City worker’s strike neatly choked off the rest).


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