Wednesday, June 12, 2013

London for Cheapskates Part 3: Spit, Iron and Gold at the British Library

Above: a statue of Newton in the courtyard of the British Library.

At Victoria Station, swaddled in my second-hand parka, I descended again into the Underground, quickening my pace as I joined the strong-flowing current of fellow commuters. My destination: the British Library at St Pancras. As an English major whose mother presented me at varying points in my youth with sets of Shakespeare, Tolkien and Arthur Conan Doyle, and who was engrossed by adventure novels penned by British islanders like Swift, Defoe and Stevenson, and later, the darker work of Dickens and Austen, I couldn’t skip a chance to geek out in one of the oldest, largest and greatest vaults of literature assembled in human history. Additionally, by means of a benign online subterfuge, in which I posed as a freelance writer researching unusual and interesting free things to do in Britain’s capital, I had succeeded in wangling the  final remaining ticket for a behind-the-scenes look inside the library’s Centre for Conservation, which opens its three locked sets of double doors only one Thursday each month for a small, always-filled group tour of its workshop, located in a climate-and-light-controlled studio behind an empty courtyard camouflaged by potted plants. And did I mention the tour is free? I was excited. There exist only a handful of national libraries in the world that house more books and manuscripts than the BL, which was founded in 1753 and now holds more than 16 million works, including priceless and famous objects on display such as the Magna Carta and DaVinci’s notebooks, the original Beowulf, the Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio.  (The Library of Congress in the U.S. is the largest, with 30 million books, followed by national libraries in Germany, Canada and Russia.)

I arrived early enough to look around before my tour. The library provides free wireless Internet for visitors and has a nice café, with a few hundred small tables scattered around large open spaces. In the middle of a weekday, every table was occupied, and not by latte-sipping tourists taking a break from shopping, like me. These people seemed to be working – actively writing or engaged in what sounded to my unpracticed ear to be serious adult conversation. Were they actually discussing literature and writing, books? I swear on the Gutenberg that I witnessed several people writing longhand on paper with actual pencils. I saw a man and woman scrolling through a document on a Mac and speaking in a very animated way about something important to them – a thought, idea, word? Apparently there are still places in the world where the physical presence of books serves as a magnet for imagination, sucking people in for research and review and provoking face-to-face discussion. All around me, intense, private conversations were humming in hushed library tones, and I had the feeling that for many of these fellow pilgrims, simply being under the same roof with 16 million books was contributing to a powerful creative flow and sense of collective possibility. With no literary masterwork of my own in which to invest brainpower, I contented myself with a coffee and then strolled through an awesome special exhibit of Mughal art and literature, as well as a free exhibit showcasing the most famous and inventive mystery writers since the genre was invented. At 2 p.m., I found my way out back to the Conservation Centre.
Above: the King's Library looms overhead as scribes and scholars take advantage of one of the most important collections of written works in the world.
We are ushered inside by Robert Brodie, Conservation Team Leader, after being instructed not to take photographs, touch anything or disturb the lab techs. Purses and packs are checked at reception. Today we are especially lucky, Brodie informs us. The lab’s gold leaf finisher happens to be working on some restorative work, re-embossing spines of very old and valuable books; it is a rare occasion in a place of rare works. As we enter the one-story lab, a door opens from a subterranean elevator shaft. A pair of techs emerge pushing a cart of large dusty tomes bearing the title “Near India Office Records.” We step aside as the patients are rolled slowly into the south-facing workshop, designed to enable an elite corps of craftsmen and women to take advantage of daylight streaming in through large windows. The setup reminds me a bit of a newsroom – open and casual, people working with their heads down, hardly taking note of those entering and leaving – except there are no computers on the desks. Instead there are stacks of Japanese mulberry bush paper, parchment paper, leather strips and buckram; special glues made of sturgeon; thick books and manuscripts jumbled among strange and well-worn hand tools, along with wooden vises, presses and small wooden structures called tappers, loaded with dead weights, that resemble miniature looms. Here, someone is working on the original notebooks of Virginia Woolf. There is a collection of rare Soviet political leaflets requiring restoration. On that desk, the papers of William Trumbull, circa 1635 – the most expensive section of the most expensive archive ever purchased by the library. On that desk is sitting an original work of the Georgian poet Lascelles Abercrombie. Across the way, an expert bookbinder is using a large needle and a technique called French sewing to re-bind very, very old sheets of music.  The lab is a beautiful mess, a rehabilitation centre for priceless literature and written works of art, littered with yellowing, rusting, moldering relics representing some of the most culturally and historically important work of mankind.
Brodie's conservators are in such high demand that the Centre uses an estimating and bidding system, in which the curatorial staff from various departments annually submit their priorities for restoration, logging the information into a database. The database has a scoring system agreed upon by the Heads of Collection that includes factors such as the condition of the book, its rarity, level of use, and whether the item is part of the National Published Archive. How often is the damaged work actually read? Is the work scheduled to be digitized? How extensive is the repair required? Is the book or object scheduled to be included soon in a special exhibit? “To guard it, fold it, bind it, it could take us 300 hours,” Brodie says. “Six people in a unit here can do 5,194 hours of work in a year.” Once items are scored, an estimate is provided of the length of time the work will take, balanced against the work capacity of the conservators. “I have 50 people. They are the rock stars of conservation,” but they can only do so much work in a year.

Next, we head over to talk to Doug Mitchell, a gold leaf finisher who is working alone in his own secure lab. Mitchell has been a bookbinder for 40 years. He uses albumin glaze crystals, 23-and-a-half carat gold and false gold foil to make the mix he needs. Right now, he is re-numbering in gold leaf a set of large, leather-bound historical volumes known as the Portland Papers. He uses his own spit to test the heat on a miniature iron hot plate, which is heating up a tiny branding iron he will use to press the numbers. “If there are no bubbles it’s about right,” he says. He preps the leather first by rubbing it with a clear liquid to fill the leather’s pores, then quickly presses his tiny iron into the spine in a series of strokes as he retools the binding, finishing up by swiping a solvent called Hexane over the numbers to gently polish the new gold work on the spine. Spit, iron and 23-carat gold. “Done it this way since the 1400s,” Mitchell says.
Dizzy and famished by my prolonged exposure to so many books, I headed out of the library and into the Tube again in search of gustatory nourishment, emerging this time in Soho for an early dinner at the hottest cheap restaurant in London, an Italian bacaro on Beak Street called Polpo, located in a building where the Venetian painter Canaletto once lived. Polpo showed up on everybody's lists of the top 10 cheapest gourmet eats in London, so it was an easy choice, though I was worried I might not be able to get a table. At 630 pm, I had no trouble finding a seat at the bar, though by 730 the tiny eatery was jammed to the gills. This busy little gem serves really good early wines and delectable, simple Italian fare at easy prices. I ordered a glass of Valpolicella Classico La Giaretta, 2011 (11 pounds) with a bowl of spicy pork and fennel meatballs (6 pounds), followed by a plate of mackerel tartare, horseradish and carta di musica (Mediterannean flatbread) at 7 pounds and a glass of Barbera Riva Leone 2011 (9 pounds), and that was enough for me. A swanky dinner out in Soho, wine included, for under $50, not bad considering I skipped lunch and spent nothing at the library, except for a coffee. I tubed back to Battersea and collapsed, Day 1 of my London trip in the books.
Meatballs, mackerel and a couple of Italian reds at Polpo, in Soho, provided the perfect finish to Day 1 of London on the Cheap.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

London for Cheapskates -- Part 2 - Thrifty Lodgings, Food and Outerwear

To be alone among the confusion is perhaps the single most piercing emotion of any stranger in the city.” – Peter Ackroyd, London: A Biography
I stepped outside the dry cleaners into the cold London morning, accompanied by a small plume of starchy-smelling steam. A few yards in front of me, rush-hour traffic moved slowly down the wrong side of the street in Battersea Park, a suburb south of Chelsea across the River Thames, over which I had just comfortably and affordably glided in a huge red double-decker bus, accidentally getting off two stops too early. I consulted my small black moleskine notebook, which contained detailed scribbled notes and directions for my self-suggested three-day itinerary for London. Out of the dry cleaners, I had instructed myself to turn right, then right, then right onto Prince of Wales Drive. My destination: a ridiculously inexpensive $66-a-night Airbnb flat located inside the opulent-sounding Albert Palace Mansions in Lurline Gardens.
I found it easily: a red brick-faced building, four stories high, embedded in a stolid bank of similar buildings fronting a narrow one-way lane lined with cars, with inset courtyard entrances spilling over with shrubbery and overwintered flowers. It is an apartment complex today, but like everything in London, Albert Palace Mansions started life as something else, and, like everything in London, has an interesting history. These buildings, I later learned, were once part of a massive late nineteenth century indoor/outdoor amusement complex, the centerpiece of which was the famous Albert Palace, a magnificent iron-and-glass structure originally built to house the Dublin International Exhibition of 1865, and then dismantled, shipped to London and rebuilt on the edge of the gardens next to Battersea Park (which actually is a giant, municipal park). The central part of the palace comprised a 473-foot nave for a permanent orchestra, with a giant organ and concert hall at one end and a tea room at the other. Indoor attractions included exhibition booths, an aquarium, picture galleries and bars, as well as an “Indian village” featuring silk spinners, a sitar maker, singers and snake-charmers; there also were cat, bird and flower shows, and the Viennese Ladies Orchestra had a standing gig. Eventually though the enterprise went under and the land and buildings were sold to developers; over a century later, this vestige of Victorian recreation is filled with middle-class Londoners living in two- and three-bedroom flats, such as the one I now trudged up four flights of spiraling stairs to temporarily occupy.
To my relief, the apartment was just as advertised: clean, neat and bright, high-ceilinged with large windows and transoms over thick wooden doors. There was a tiny but functional modern kitchen, a tidy tiled bathroom, a light-filled living room occupied by a piano, comfy couch and a large TV, with some handsome antiques scattered about. My bedroom was cozy with comfortable goose-down bedding and a large armoire, carpeted and quiet. That’ll do, pig, I thought to myself. Hmm yes, for three days in London, that’ll do quite nicely.
It was only 9 a.m. and though I had just traveled 24 mostly sleepless hours from East Africa, taken a long train ride from Heathrow and then a bus to find a dry cleaners and lodgings, my adrenalin was pumping. London. London! Rapidly, I unpacked my backpack, containing just enough clean clothes for three days (I had previously checked my big suitcase at the Britishly-named “Left Baggage” concession at Heathrow) plus my laptop, iPad and toiletries. After a shower and change of clothes, I was back outside, having consulted my moleskine, along with a detailed London map left for me in absentia by my thoughtful Airbnb hosts, both of whom were at work. There were no Tube stops close by, but an overland rail station, accessible to me with my Day Pass, was just up the street and would get me to Victoria Station just one stop away, from which I could access the Underground. First though: food.
Just across the entrance to the rail station, a whiff of fried sausage drew my attention to a stream of fluorescent green and orange-jacketed police and workmen heading in and out of a tiny diner tucked under a dingy brown trestle. Busting out my Sherlock, I made a deduction: police and workmen = always hungry + usually in a hurry + budget-minded = high probability of cheap and tasty food, fast. By Jove, I was not disappointed. For under five British pounds, I soon found myself scuppering a lake of English breakfast food that made the Grand Slam at Denny’s seem like a foul bunt. Twenty minutes later, after a few baked bean burps washed down with the last sips of an OK café-au-lait, I was on my way, re-provisioned and ready.
Above: a working man's breakfast at Bridge the Gap, Battersea Park. Below, the always-bustling Victoria Station. 

First stop: the British Red Cross Thrift Store. With my sub-Saharan wardrobe of tee-shirts, thin cotton dress shirts and summer-weight trousers, I was ill prepared for London in late winter. Research revealed a number of highly-touted second-hand clothing shops in the vicinity of Victoria Station. I lucked out at the Red Cross store, where, after trying out a Rod Stewarty full-length black leather trench, I found a thick, down-filled parka with enormous snapping pockets and plenty of room to secret an iPad Mini, moleskine and ballpoint pen, sunglasses, wallet, fat London street map and a digital camera, in just the right size. Yes, it smelled a bit like another man, but not in a bad way, and it only cost me 40 pounds, or about $61 USD – a little more than I’d wanted to spend but hey, this is London and proceeds would theoretically go to a good cause. And on Saturday, I was scheduled to be sitting and/or standing outside for hours, exposed to the natural elements and potentially, showers of soda launched by hooligans in the crowd at the Chelsea match disappointed in the performance of one squad or the other, and I was sure I’d be glad then of my 40-pound purchase.
I stopped next at a touristy knick-knack shop and picked up a cheap knit hat and pair of fleece gloves, unaware until that evening when I emptied my pockets that the cheeky storekeeper, who cleverly pegged me for a dumb American, returned my change in Mexican pesos. At the time, though, I felt extremely satisfied with myself for successfully locating the dry cleaners, checking into my Airbnb flat, finding a good local breakfast dive and obtaining inexpensive winter wear, all before lunchtime on my first day in London. Congratulating myself on my adroitness as a traveler on the cheap, I jingled pesos in my coat pocket as I walked to the Tube station in advance of my next adventure: a behind-the-scenes tour of the clandestine conservation laboratory at the world-famous British Library in St Pancras. I was about to meet the global rock stars of book conservation in their seldom-seen command centre, and it wouldn’t cost me a peso.

Above: The BL's Centre for Conservation: the Langley of the secret world of book and manuscript preservation and restoration

Saturday, May 4, 2013

London for Cheapskates - Part 1 - The Importance of Hazle Dry Cleaners

By video, I tried to justify tacking a three-night solo romp through London onto the end of a nine-week rotation at the close of my contract in South Sudan to my wife back home, who was selflessly taking care of our two little bottomless pits of need, though I would be freshly unemployed while touring one of the most expensive cities in the world at a time when money would matter more than ever.
Me on Skype:  Did you know there are now SIX Premiere League teams all based in London, and one of them (Tottenham) has TWO Americans? Did you know football (I can’t bring myself to say soccer anymore, I am too worldly now) was INVENTED in England?’’
Tahra on Skype:  (No direct response, busy mediating dispute between the girls.)
Me on Skype: “Did I tell you that my good friend Henry Chu, London bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, is there? Yeah, he’s a great guy. We can hang out.’’ (In fact Henry and I hadn’t spoken directly since 1995.)
Tahra on Skype: (No response – video screen shaking violently, moving fast, as in The Blair Witch Project, unintelligible girls snarling, something related to a fairy doll, Tahra trying to negotiate a trade involving millet crackers.)
Me in South Sudan: “Tahra? Tahra? Hey. You ok? My plan is to write a travel piece called London On the Cheap -- I bet no one else has thought of this – and then I can offset my trip expenses by selling it freelance. Yeah. I still have some really good newspaper connections. I could probably make fifty bucks.
Tahra in Massachusetts: “Sorry. I’m back. Of course you should do it, you may never get another good chance to see a soccer game in London. We can all wait another three days.''
My husband antennae, often tuned to the wrong frequencies, detected some wifely encouragement - was it real? I wasn’t sure until she went online and somehow bought me one of the last remaining tickets to see Chelsea, the reigning champions of Europe, winners of last year’s Champions League and one of the most elite football teams in the world, playing at their famed Stamford Bridge home stadium on the weekend I had penciled in for my London stopover. What a wife! Until that point, I wasn’t really thoroughly committed to going, and was a bit anxious about the implications, repercussions, funding and what have you. But now, with my bodacious soulmate’s blessing, having somehow finagled me one of the hottest tickets in town for a certain weekend in one of the oldest and most famous cities in the world, it would be unconscionable NOT to go – who could waste such a perfectly excellent (and non-refundable) opportunity, even if I am actually a Man U fan? Well then, it’s settled.
First up: plane tickets. The company would pay for my trip home to the States from Juba, per terms of the contract. Usually they send me Juba-Nairobi-Amsterdam-Detroit-Albany. But this time, I boldly asked if they could arrange a multi-city return ticket with a three-day stopover in London during the weekend of the Chelsea game, and a red-eye out of Nairobi so I wouldn’t have to pay for an extra night of lodging. Miraculously, the company obliged me, and I further arranged to depart Juba and get to Nairobi in the morning on a Wednesday, leaving me with enough time to cruise around Kenya’s capital before the late night flight out. Upon arrival in NBO, my plan was to hire a driver, buy some handmade beer cap toys (the girls, especially Ursula, really like them) and something nice for Tahra at a Masaai market off the Mombasa road, grab lunch with my soon-to-be former colleagues Phylis and Judy in Westlands, and make it back to the airport with plenty of time before my 11:30 pm flight to London. (Author’s Note: Kenyans can make just about anything out of discarded metal beer caps and scavenged wire. But is a lunch box made out of beer caps inappropriate for a kindergartner? I guess we’ll find out.)
Another, more pressing question: where to stay in London? I tried looking online for inexpensive inns, something small and preferably luxurious, English breakfast included, in the center of the action maybe in Soho or Chelsea, say for under $100? Or a quaint cob cottage with a thatched roof, something hobbitty, serving greens from their organic English garden aside the bangers and mash? But no such thing existed, and I wasn’t quite prepared to go hosteling. (Eleven years ago on my first night in Key West, I had to throw wasabi soy nuts at the face of a big snoring drunk across from me on a lower bunk. Packed into a warm room with five other off-gassing, respiring cheapskates. Worrying about my valuables.) My London friend, Henry, electronically laughed when I asked if he knew of any nice but cheap places to stay, and quickly snuffed out any notion I might have had about crashing with him. Ordinarily, he emailed, he’d love to have me, but he was moving to a new place in Clapham that weekend and it wasn’t a good time, but we should certainly meet for a drink at least; send a text. I decided that even if he was fibbing, I couldn’t blame him, as I hadn’t been in touch with him regularly for 18 years; possibly I had developed poor hygiene in the interval, or become an acolyte of Tony Robbins with big plans, or a Republican. But I didn’t think it was a fib. As I told Tahra during my London pitch, Henry is a great guy.
Then I remembered a website called AirBnB. It enables ordinary humans to post short-term rooms to let, with good rates, pretty much everywhere in the world, a sharing-economy kind of thing for travelers looking for something different, on a budget. I was staggered by the number and variety of places available in London, many at prices around $100-$150 per night or lower. I narrowed down my search to an area not too far from Henry’s new pad in Clapham, and not too far from upscale Chelsea (which is where J.R.R. Tolkien once lived, FYI). I found a clean-looking and tastefully decorated flat offering a one-bedroom, bathroom and kitchen shared, owned by a young married couple in Battersea Park, south of the Thames, close to Battersea Park rail station, straight shot to Victoria Station, easy access to buses and the Tube. Sixty-six dollars a night, uniformly excellent reviews from previous lodgers. It was available the nights I needed, and when I informed my hosts that I’d be getting into Heathrow very early, could they accommodate a morning check-in, they said sure no problem, they both had to go work early and would be gone when I arrived, but would leave the keys for me, a complete stranger posing as a writer working on a piece about London On the Cheap, at Hazle Dry Cleaners, around the corner from their flat. And so they did.
Hazle Dry Cleaners, Battersea Park, London. An unlikely point of entry, but when traveling on the cheap, one must allow for the unexpected.
I took a bus to Hazle Dry Cleaners, I think it was the 452 from Knightsbridge, after taking the Tube from Heathrow. Bought a Day Pass, allowed me to travel around very cheaply.
One of the first things I learned about Londoners: they only allow humps inside specific zones, in contrast to the No Humping policy on Amtrak trains back home.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Viral By the Nile

I finally got sick in South Sudan.

Before you come, everyone and everything you read warns of it, such that it seems inevitable: disease and suffering. You cannot work in the poorest country in the world and expect not to contract something exotic and possibly deadly. Parasites. Amoebae. Killer mosquito and insect-borne viral infections, cerebral malaria, diarrhea, dysentery, fly bites that cause comas; beetles that secrete skin-blistering toxins. A few weeks ago my boss quietly sent me to the World Health Organization headquarters in Juba to check on reports of a possible viral hemorrhagic fever outbreak up north, in an area where we have staff. The disease is also known as Ebola, named after a river in Congo, next door to South Sudan. People were bleeding from orifices and dying, but it turns out it was probably something else, my WHO contact said. They were investigating and would let me know.

And then I took ill. It started with upper back pain, followed by a pink rash, on the same sore part of my back. The pink turned to bright red, and clear white blisters popped out and marched toward my underarm. The back pain intensified and moved under and down my right arm, girdling me, radiating into my chest. The blister rash spread along the same front, and I began to worry. I knew it wasn’t malaria – there’s no rash involved and I assiduously take a malaria prophylaxis every day, even though hardcore aid workers out here make fun of me for it. Better to get malaria occasionally and gut it out, they say, than spend the money on expensive meds which mightn’t work anyway.

I didn’t think it could be diphtheria, tetanus, typhoid, yellow fever, polio or meningitis, either, because I got boosters or vaccines for all six of the above before my first trip out, two years ago. Which also makes me a wussy, I guess, if a fairly well protected one. I hoped.
After three days I was worried enough about the rash and internal pain, which now included headaches, to consult my Kenyan friend Esther, a professional masseuse. I showed her the angry rashy wasteland that was my upper right torso, and told her about the stabbing nervey soreness bubbling underneath my skin, on top of the bone.

“Nairobi fly bite, I think,” she said before turning to leave, quickly, in case it was something else, catching. I looked it up online and yes, there is a black-and-red flying beetle, common in Juba despite its eponymous name, that excretes something called pederin when touched that leaves a nasty bright red painful blistery rash.
I was secretly delighted.

A Nairobi fly bite, imagine that! Mom and dad will be horrified and tell all our relatives! I can blog about it and impress everyone! Tahra can shock our friends with the news at PTA.
I wanted a second opinion, though, so I showed my boss. She’s been here a lot longer than me and is from Bangladesh, which has its fair share of third-world health problems.

She poked it.
“Does it hurt?”

“Yes. When you poke it especially.”
“I think it could be Nairobi fly. But why don’t you go to the clinic and get it looked at, instead of just complaining about it?”

The next morning I presented myself at Unity Clinic, a clean and efficient Aussie-run shop in Juba that few people other than ex-pats can afford. They take only cash, only U.S. dollars, and it costs $125 just to get in the door.
A Scottish nurse with a clipboard and a stethoscope asked me about my problem.

“Two people have told me it’s probably Nairobi fly,’’ I said, hoping to influence her diagnosis.
“I don’t think so,” she said after a quick look.

Oh man, it could be something juicier! Maybe they’ll have to Medevac me.
“It’s a virus called shingles. It’s related to chicken pox, which you must have had as a kid." The virus stays in you, it turns out, and can erupt when you're stressed or tired. My wife, who is a very skilled Web-based medical sleuth, had arrived at the same diagnosis a week ago, though I rejected the suggestion that my illness, contracted in South Sudan, could be so un-exotic. Also -

“I thought that’s for older people?” I asked the nurse.
I got some pain meds and anti-virals. Apparently I’ll be better in two weeks.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

What's Upstairs

I got in from Nairobi and reached Gate F5 in Schiphol Airport a bit earlier than usual for my next flight from Amsterdam. Went through the X-ray machines and handed my passport and boarding pass to a young KLM lady behind the counter. She scanned me in and I saw red text blinking on her screen: “SEAT CHANGE * SEAT CHANGE’’ and number 75J pop up. Whereas I had previously carefully selected seat 11C, an aisle seat in Economy Comfort toward the front of the plane, for the long leg to the U.S.

I hope you’re not changing my seat, because I reserved an aisle…..
Yes sir. You have been upgraded to Business Class.
Gulp. I admit, as much as I travel, until that moment I didn’t really know what Business Class was. Certainly I had HEARD of Business Class. I knew they didn’t ordinarily let people like me sit in Business Class. I don’t own a briefcase. I never took Accounting. Sudoku scares me, and I don’t have an iPhone. All I knew was this: the Business Class people always go first on the plane, I think even before people in wheelchairs and moms with babies, and then you don’t see them again, ever, and that when they walk by the rest of us sweaty impatient Economy people massed near the door, we hush down and step aside, and they walk coolly past on their cells, selling off chip-maker stocks and smelling of expensive lotion while we stare and wonder how they came by so much money.
I didn’t want to appear over-anxious, yet was the first passenger on the plane. I could feel the lowerclasses staring and wondering at me as I boarded. They think I am an American Internet wizard, that’s why my face is unshaven and my clothes are cheap….they likely think I am friends with Mark Zuckerberg. Perhaps they think I am an actor – several people have said I resemble Rick Moranis. I feel sorry for them. They will not be on the plane first and they will be so cramped, poor things. Umm....
Imagine my surprise when the flight attendant, instead of pointing left or right, pointed up the stairs. Business Class as a metaphor for heaven? WOW. Never have I been upstairs on a plane.
At the top of the stairs I turned left, and beheld a scene of great comfort. The seats were as large as Aunt Joanne’s and Uncle Reggie’s La-Z-Boys back in West Virginia – possibly larger. Grey wrinkly soft leather, or it could have been really nice fake leather that was just as comfortable as leather. Real arm rests, roomy and flat, with space for two or three cocktails at once – no elbow fights up here. The seats all had something that looked like levers sticking out of them on their right sides, at about head-height. I wasn’t sure but guessed they had something to do with turning the seats into beds. It smelled comfortable, too. Maybe they filter the air, or just do a better job cleaning the bathrooms, but there was not the usual stuffy urine-tinged-and-many-other-nervous-people plane smell that is common among the commoners – I mean, in Economy. Hey CHECK OUT THE HEADPHONES! After figuring out I didn’t have to pay for them, (they looked like you should have to pay for them), I sat down in my cavernous aisle seat and tried to reach them, new-looking and packed in plastic in the back of the seat in front of me. I had to get up, though, because the magazine holder in front of me was so far away. Is there such a thing as too much legroom?
I began experimenting with the lever sticking out of the seat by my temple. I yanked it up – nothing. Yanked it down – nada. Tried rotating it gently in clockwise and counter-clockwise motions. Maybe it was broken – nothing I tried with the lever would turn my seat into a bed. After puzzling over it for several minutes, I realized it was a reading lamp. So I turned it on and pretended I knew what it was all along, as I explored the 10-button electronic seat massage system.
They give gifts, too, in Business Class. First I got a spiffy black pouch filled with toiletries including a tiny tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush, as well as warm soft socks and a silky sleeping mask. But the coup de grace was the tiny Delft ceramic Dutch rowhouse replica, about the size of a saltshaker, containing a shot or two of expensive Dutch gin. When the stewardess came by with it, I had no idea what was happening. She looked at me, and I looked at her, so she positioned her tray a little closer to me, expectantly. I picked up the small house, looked at it, and put it back on the tray.
It’s very nice, I said.
She waited.
Is it...for me? I asked.
Yes. It is a gift.
What is it?
It is very good Dutch gin in a tiny Dutch house. You can collect them.
Of course. My kids will love it. Thank you.