The moon was shining when we approached Pisa, and
for a long time we could see, behind the wall, the leaning Tower, all awry in
the uncertain light; the shadowy original of the old pictures in school-books,
setting forth 'The Wonders of the World.' Like most things connected in their
first associations with school-books and school-times, it was too small. I felt
it keenly. It was nothing like so high above the wall as I had hoped. It was
another of the many deceptions practised by Mr. Harris, Bookseller, at the
corner of St. Paul's Churchyard, London. HIS Tower was a fiction, but this was a
reality--and, by comparison, a short reality. Still, itlooked very well, and
very strange, and was quite as much out of the perpendicular as Harris had
represented it to be. The quiet air of Pisa too; the big guard-house at the
gate, with only two little soldiers in it; the streets with scarcely any show of
people in them; and the Arno, flowing quaintly through the centre of the town;
were excellent. So, I bore no malice in my heart against Mr.Harris (remembering
his good intentions), but forgave him before dinner, and went out, full of
confidence, to see the Tower next morning.
A few hours in England and I find that my long absence has not in any way dented my ability to whilnge and enjoy the whingeing of others, Daily Telegraph style: it's still open season on MP's and their naughty expenses, which makes for humorous reading, and thank goodness for little else seems funny at this moment.
Heathrow is hard to love. Our flight made excellent time, but we were left in a holding pattern for an extra half hour before we could deplane. I took the - for me - bold decision to be last off the 747. It was a very good flight, my travelling companion was a nice, interesting and discreet lady and we had the blessing of an empty seat between us so we both got some sleep in between the amazingly good airline food. Now there's a phrase you don't hear often. Bagage claim is like a bizzarro funfair attraction, a cross between riding the ghost train and the big dipper while preparing for the How Much Can You Lift contest. Except it is the bags that ride around while I stand helplessly hoping and dreading that this is the time one of those horror stories fellow travellers tell finally catches up with me. Speaking of tales, my row companion told me of a trip across Northern Italy; she and her husband thought they had booked an overnight trip South, they found their couchette, and were told they had to leave their bags in a luggage rack just outside. They fell asleep, only to wake up in the small hours to discover that the train had only gone for two hours before stopping in a siding, and everyone including all the FS staff, had left. Their bags they found strewn all over the carriages, laptops and valuables of course long gone. Ah happy thoughts.
But it seems my bag has been forwarded, I don't have to take it through customs, which is weird because surely at Milan there won't be any customs check. That can't be right, I have to go through all the hoops, don't I? Or am I going to be penalized for this later? Well, not having to cart my suitcase an inch more than necessary is a good thing, leaves me way more time to sneer at Gordon Ramsay's Plane Food restaurant, with its dusty balls and cheap font, in Terminal 5. The dreaded new terminal, according to the press, where so much has gone wrong. My new friend was quite cheerful about it, the new decor and the modern facilities, but then she's not English and can't be expected to have her whinge on even though it is 9 am which translates as 3 am Eastern time. I hate it, the battleship grey and the bolted trusses make it look like car auction house, I half expect a rusty Montego to come coughing down the concourse. The concourse, the corridors, the halls - it's all too much walking. There are lots of shops to distract you but they are stupid shops like Dior and Harrod's. Water costs two pounds and a sandwich ten. Standard airport thievery I know, and inexcusable really when you think that on a plane ticket costing, say, 850 dollars, about 500 of those dollars goes to the airpoprts for fees and taxes. divide by half, say, since there are two airports involved, and then multiply that by all the passengers passing through Heathrow and they suddenly seem like the meanest, most rapacious and ugliest carnies in the business.
Even more annoying is the gate system in Terminal 5 which only tells you your number at the last minute. There are three sets of gates, the A set, which is the same as the general waiting area, and then B and C which involve taking a 10 -20 minute transit vehicle ride... arghh more walking/carrying. So here I sit, twisting in my seat at least once a minute to observe my flight crawling slowly up the departure board, waiting to know where I should be going next. Talk about tenterhooks. It seems people get tired of waiting in A, and head off to B or C, depending on where they predict their flight will be leaving from - so the desire to flop down in your gate well before time is not just confined to me. How one decides whether to go to B or C must, I imagine, involve the close study of other flights to similar destinations, if an earlier flight to Rome is going from C 43 then maybe your flight to Paris will be going from a nearby gate. Except that this kind of logic does not apply: it's a puzzle of planes, maintenance and baggage, not an exercise in geography. Hence the constantly repeated announcement by that girl with the high bright young echoey voice that passengers should not go to B or C until they are asdvised to do so. She also reminds us every few seconds that she will destroy our bags if we leave them unattended. In the nicest possible way.
Termninal 5 is grubbier and more worn than I expected it to be but the good news is my time there was shorter and simpler than I expected. just 30 minutes before the flight to Milan was ready to leave, they put up the gate number - A11, only 50 paces from where I had been waiting. And off we go, leaving behind the drizzle of a London morning, headed, like Dickens, to see if the pictures in my head are to scale.