Thursday, February 24, 2005

Feb 24 2005

And here’s how the England trip went:

On Friday, my wonderful parents picked me up from work and drove me to Dulles Airport, where I breezed through security and spent two hours lounging at the gate, watching Zeta Gundam on my laptop. I boarded my Virgin Atlantic flight and took a seat next to an older gentleman who was returning to Pakistan following a lecture here in the States. Quite a trip for him.

We had a minor incident on the plane: I woke up at one point and noticed the air crew half-dragging a very inebriated gentleman to the back. He wasn’t loud or angry, as far as I could see; just barely able to move his own body. The captain later informed us that “the local constabulary” would board the plane immediately upon landing and would escort this gentleman out. When they did—and he still could barely move—applause broke out. Apparently he had made quite a nuisance of himself.

We landed at about 7:00 a.m. Saturday morning, so I grabbed a bus to my hotel and checked in at 8:00. I entered my room, attempted to switch on the lights in the bathroom to take a shower, and…nothing. None of the light switches worked. I tried the lamps in the main room; nothing. I figured I must be missing something obvious, so I worked up some courage and called the front desk. I explained to the nice woman that none of the lights came on, and she replied that I could get a wake-up call tomorrow. I blinked and re-explained my problem, and I think she still was confused because she just said she’d send a porter around. A minute later, a knock on the door announced a very nice man who showed me a slot into which I had to insert my door key. The electricity would only work if the key was in the slot. An ingenious way to ensure patrons don’t leave the lights on while they go out for the day, and the first I’d seen this.

So I took a shower and, at 9:00, went down to the bar where we agreed to meet. After writing up a little sign that read “Syllable” and typing on my laptop for a few minutes, someone came up and asked if I was Brent Newhall. It was one of the Syllable guys.

We chatted very amiably for the next hour or so as others arrived. We maxed out at seven people, which I consider a rousing success for a small-time operating system like ours. We discussed how Syllable was different from other operating system projects (particularly SkyOS), our personal plans for various Syllable projects, and where we’d like to see Syllable in a few years. And the entire discussion happened organically, without awkward silences or forced discussion points.

I want to make this point because I consciously avoided organizing this convention. I wanted to see if the community could self-organize the event, and it came off without a hitch.

By 5:00 I could barely keep my eyes open, so I excused myself, returned to my hotel room, and fell into bed. I slept for a solid seven hours, waking up around midnight to doze and watch TV. Actually, BBC2 uses this time to air educational programming, so I was able to catch some fascinating programs about homeopathic medicine and good study habits.

My flight left at 11:00 a.m., so I set my alarm for 7:00 a.m., figuring that I probably wouldn’t even go to sleep again. But I did, and when my alarm woke me up at 7:00 I was quite groggy, so I set the alarm forward by half an hour and went back to sleep.

The alarm didn’t go off again.

So I woke up and blearily looked at the clock. 10:03. ACK! I threw everything together, grabbed a bus, and raced to the Virgin Atlantic counter, where a helpful Virgin employee came over and asked me which flight I was on. “11:00 to Washington,” I said. Her face fell and she replied, “That flight’s closed. Come on over here.” She sent me to the front of a line, where they verified that they’d just closed the door of my airplane. The only other flight to the U.S. was to JFK Airport in New York.

So, being Virgin Atlantic, they brightly and sympathetically gave me a ticket for that flight. No charge.

So I grabbed a meal and sat in the cafeteria for about an hour, absorbing this turn of events and letting my stomach and mind settle. Then I was pretty much okay; I went to the huge departure lounge, browsed the Virgin Megastore (where I could have bought some Angelic Layer) and watched some of the extremely disturbing children’s programming on the TVs set up around the lounge (this is worse than the Teletubbies. Imagine that for a moment).

(Okay, if your brain hasn’t exploded: Imagine five people dressed in big fuzzy neon outfits that make them look rotund. These outfits end in turtlenecks, and they look like babies, but the turtlenecks obscure everything except their big eyes and bald heads. In a flashy CGI sequence, they awake out of crescent-shaped beds and fly down to a white stage on which they dance. But because of the awkwardness of their designs, all they can really do is bounce and jiggle from side to side. So they do that. For many, many minutes. Then they fly back to their star child beds and go back to sleep. Yyyyeah.)

I then got on the flight to JFK, which was on a 747 and much nicer than the plane on which I flew to Heathrow. The 747 had Virgin’s newest entertainment system, with 51 movies alone (among them Ghost in the Shell 2, actually). So I alternated between random TV programming, their J-Pop radio station, and my Zeta Gundam collection on my laptop.

I arrived at JFK and decided I’d try to catch a train down to D.C. Everyone was thoroughly unhelpful, and I got confused and got on a bus to the Port Authority instead of Grand Central Station. I got back to JFK two and a half hours later. The bus did go through Times Square, though, so that was fun.

Times Square is interesting. It’s definitely a lot cleaner than it used to be; it’s bright and fun now. But the strip clubs are still only two blocks away. It’s an odd juxtaposition; bright neon advertisements for Samsung and Coke on one side, and “LIVE ADULT SHOWS” on the other.

Also, New York is not a particularly pretty city. There’s art everywhere, but the place feels grimy and worn, like a factory during the industrial revolution.

So as I journeyed through the city—and endured a self-important passenger who “never got a ticket” and “wouldn’t get off this bus” then found his ticket in his pocket—I called my parents and had them look up flights to D.C. Luckily, Independence Air had a few flights, which I was sure I could catch.

I returned to JFK and managed to find the Independence Air desk, where the ticket lady was nice enough to sell me a ticket right there. It was for a flight that wouldn’t leave for a couple of hours, but I was thankful just for that. I called my parents with the final details and sank into a seat at the gate.

Yesterday, I wrote that I’d planned to write about the difference in hospitality between the British and New Yorkers. Every customer service rep in England—and I had to deal with about ten, by my count—was unfailingly polite and genuinely paid attention to my requests (even the confused Holiday Inn receptionist). Every customer rep in New York was sullen and seemed to take personal offense at my requests (except the woman at the Independence Air ticket desk). The difference was shocking.

We had to walk out onto the tarmac and up the stairs into the plane. Not a big-budget operation. The plane itself only sat fifty passengers. But it was a solid little thing and the service was absolutely fine. It felt like high-end bus service. And, frankly, how much service do I need on board a plane?

It started to snow as we boarded, and we sat anxiously in the plane as we waited to be cleared for take-off. After about half an hour, the pilot explained over the intercom that we could take off soon, but we had to be de-iced first. That was rather cool, actually; buses came out and sprayed big white jets of de-icing compound all over the wings and side of the plane. It sounded exactly like the water from a house sweeping over a car window.

We were de-iced and we took off, and the flight went off without a hitch. I didn’t even have enough time to watch a full episode of Zeta Gundam before we landed. My parents were there to pick me up, and we went back to there place where I collapsed into a very soft, very warm, very welcome bed.

And that was my England trip.

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