19 July 2006, Homeward bound

Wednesday, alas, it was time to go home. After breakfast at the hotel, we packed and settled in the lobby to wait for the "Hotel Connection" limousine service. We had planned just to take a taxi to Victoria Station and to catch the half-hourly express train to Gatwick, but the hotel recommended this service, which we initially thought was a door-to-door thing. They agreed to pick us up between 9:00 and 9:30 a.m., for our 1:00 p.m. flight.

As it turned out, what you get for your 14 pounds is van service from your hotel to Victoria Station, where the driver personally escorts you to a particular car on the train to Gatwick and gives you your ticket (included in the 14 pounds). After a 30-minute air-conditioned ride to the airport, the train is met at the other end by another "Hotel Connection" employee, who escorts you to your airline's check-in counter. The upside is that, yes, it saved us time and hassle at each end of the train ride—we didn't have to study signs, figure out where to go, buy tickets, etc. The downside is that it was slow. We were farthest from the station and were therefore picked up first, about 9:20 a.m. We then spent over an hour in traffic, in the poorly air-conditioned van, picking up other passengers all over London, until all 10 seats were filled. Traffic was so bad that we ran late, so to ensure we caught our intended train, the driver unloaded all the luggage at Victoria, then set off at almost a run for the train platform. We kept up okay, but one older woman with a cane was left in the dust. Her daughter kept up as far as the train, retrieved the suitcase the driver was carrying for her, and explained that she would wait for the next train, after going back to find her mother! (Good thing the older woman wasn't traveling alone; her bag would have beat her to the airport by a good half hour and probably have been impounded by security.) I don't know what the train ticket alone would have cost, but unless it's a good deal more than 4 pounds, I'd say the van service wasn't worth it.

Anyway, we got to the airport in plenty of time, only to find that the line at the Delta counter was about 100 deep and moving glacially. I was impressed, though, that employees with computers on little rolling tables were working the line, checking passports and doing all the "who packed these bags" and "where have they been since then" questions" in advance. The hold-up was that many parties had to be rebooked as they reached the counter because, yeesh!, the flight was scheduled to depart five hours late! Equipment problems in Atlanta delayed the departure of the flight whose plane we would be taking back to Atlanta. In our case, rebooking wasn't practical; there was nothing for it but to check our bags and hang out for five hours at Gatwick. We did notice, though, when they issued our boarding passes, that our seat numbers had moved way forward in the plane—a good sign.

Gatwick sushiFortunately, Gatwick has been enlarged and extensively remodeled since we were last there; maybe it's part of the preparations for the 2012 Olympics. So we killed the time until lunch window shopping and checking out the food options. I had heard about conveyer-belt sushi, but I'd never actually seen it. In this photo of a place called "Yo! Sushi," the two rows of little domed dishes are on slow conveyer belts, going round and round a long rectangular counter. You sit at the counter and pick and choose among the offerings that wander by. Chefs worked in the middle, replenishing the conveyer belt as dishes were removed. We didn't investigate, but it presumably works like a Chinese dim sum restaurant—the color of the dish indicates price category, and at the end your bill is determined from the collection of little empty dishes you've accumulated. An ingenious solution to the problem of serving inherently slow-to-prepare food like sushi to travellers who want their food immediately (they have planes to catch) .

Gatwick seafood barWe had hours to spare, though, so we opted instead for the chrome and glass "seafood bar," a satellite of the airport's duty-free smoked-salmon-and-caviar operation. They had lobster (North American, I'm pretty sure), crab (European almost certainly), other seafood, and all sorts of caviar, but we both got the "salmon platter," an assortment of two kinds of smoked salmon and one of gravlax (dill-marinated salmon), with a sweet mustard sauce and salad. Delectible.

Gatwick salmonGatwick lobsterAfter lunch, we settled in at the gate to read, work on the blog, etc. until flight time, which did finally arrive.

They must have managed to rebook all the first-class passengers, because, although we had been moved forward into the first-class cabin, we saw no first-class service at all (or perhaps Delta has just given up first-class service as a cost-cutting measure). Those of us up front got the benefit of the larger seats, greater leg room, wider arm rests, adjustable foot rests, individual video screens, etc., but everyone got the same food, beverages, and service, wherever they sat. Not that I'm complaining. I'll take coach service in a first-class seat over the other way around any time. We got a reasonably good dinner soon after take-off, ice cream at mid-flight, and a pizza snack shortly before landing. I spent most of the flight reading A Prayer for Owen Meany— book club was coming up, and I was way behind on it.

Atlanta antsWe missed our Atlanta connection to Tallahassee by hours, of course, so Delta gave us meal vouchers for dinner and breakfast (they gave us each 5 pounds in London toward the salmon lunch, and two $7 vouchers each in Atlanta) and booked us a room at the Country Inn, a brand new, perfectly okay little motel about 5 minutes from the airport. Figuring out where we were supposed to go, what we were supposed to do with our luggage, etc., in the process of going through passport control, customs, etc. was very difficult (partly because we'd been up for about 22 hours by then, but also because the signage was totally unhelpful). The people directing us kept offering helpful explanations like "You have to go back through security again, because you're still inside the airport." Uh, what? And we spoke English. The Europeans on the flight were entirely baffled. We finally figured out that, to get out of the airport with our luggage to spend the night in Atlanta, we had to claim our bags from the carrousels in Concourse E, where we arrived; take them through customs; recheck them just so that they could be conveyed the length of the airport to the "South Terminal" (for which there were no direction signs—you just had to know to take the train toward Concourse T) while we made the same trip on the little subway train; and claim it again from the carrousels at main baggage claim, where the taxis and motel shuttles were waiting. Never having gone through baggage claim in Atlanta before, I had never seen this wonderful sculpture of ants (presumably fire ants) over the heads of the crowd around the carrousels.

In the morning (which came all too soon), the motel shuttled us back to the airport, where we had a leisurely breakfast (breakfast options in that airport have gotten very good) before catching the 9:15 a.m. flight back to Tallahassee. Back at the house, we dropped off the bags, picked up our clubs, and headed for Seminole Golf Course to get some sun (it helps with the jet lag). During the first lightning delay (just as we were approaching the ninth green), we broke for lunch and watched some of the British Open on the big screen in the grill. When the sirens went off again, while we were playing the 17th, we gave up and went home. That still left us time to grocery shop, do laundry, and discover that a foot-long brown skink had gotten into the house and taken up residence under the living-room sofa. He was beautiful and harmless, and would probably have (a) survived just fine indoors and (b) done a good job of holding down the spider population and mopping up any palmetto bugs that got in, but it wouldn't have done our nerves or his health any good to step on him in the dark some night, so we decided he had to go. It took us until Sunday afternoon to catch him in the open and chase him out the front door with a broom. Thus did he and we return to our respective native habitats; vacation was over.

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