1986

Great pizza in the capital of a great Republic

31 December 1986 British Airways 217 London Heathrow to Washington Dulles

Sleeper trains in the UK have never caused me any problem at all. They are well worth considering, although the passenger on Air UK would take issue with me here. Having travelled down on the overnight sleeper from Liverpool to London Euston, we spent a short time in central London before getting the tube to Heathrow.

But now, for the first time, an intercontinental flight. Terminal 4 at Heathrow hadn't long been open, so we took the opportunity of getting there early and checking in for the flight to give time to look around. In Terminal 4 everything seemed new, well-organised and clean. Many people have criticised it but I had no reason to do so. We checked in, but even though our baggage was checked, it was not taken from us, and we were told this would be done later. As one of the reasons for checking in early was to be relieved of our suitcases, we passed them to a handling desk who put them on a conveyor belt and they were quickly out of sight.

This was not a good move, because it seems that one flight in ten is singled out for special security attention, and ours was that flight. Probably every flight gets this level of security attention now. The world has not recovered from the horror of the Lockerbie incident, and as I write this there is a real threat that any international flight might be a target of Iraq. (As I revise it several months later, the threat has diminished but not vanished. As that threat fades, another one will come and take its place, and this will be the case forever.)

Anyway, our baggage was in the Heathrow system, and so the airport staff just had to accept this as a fact of life. Our baggage did get to Washington, and nobody saw fit to detonate it safely before it reached the aircraft.

While we were waiting in the departure lounge, we had the chance to see many aircraft depart, including the daily Concorde flight to New York. Concorde always captures the imagination, but I had never seen it on an ordinary flight before. The most notable thing about it is the vast acceleration it has. While still in sight, I am sure it had reached twice the speed of all the other jets.

Anyway, time passed by, and soon it was time for us to board. The airliner we would be using was a Lockheed Tristar L- 1011, which from time to time was allocated to the Washington route. They are good aeroplanes, larger than most except the mighty 747. They are comfortable, offer good food and good service, although this is probably as much the effect of the airline as the aircraft itself.

Dulles International Airport just outside Washington DC was built as an experimental airport, where all the aircraft park two miles from the terminal and passengers are transported to and from the terminal in what they call motorised lounges, and what I call buses. This system is inefficient in the extreme, and means that late arriving passengers have no chance of catching the flight. This is probably not an advantage.

If anybody has ever told you about immigration in the United States being traumatic and tedious, then let me tell you that they were not exaggerating. We stood in line for the first time, having been used to queues up to that point, and on reaching the head of the queue, the usual questions were asked. It was hot. We were tired. It took a very long time. Spare a thought for those who have travelled a longer distance with young children. You might like to spare those thoughts for much later in this story, as by this date I am only engaged.

We had secured United States visas before our journey, as they were essential in those days. Even so, Immigration notices give a warning that even possession of a visa is no guarantee of entry. The final decision is made by the immigration officer. Fortunately we had one who was only mildly paranoid. I realise that I probably now have no chance of American publication of this document. Fortunately, I was admitted for up to six months, but was forbidden from working at all while I was there.

I had earlier been told that the best riposte to the instruction to have a nice day was to apologise that I had already made other plans, and I had resolved to say this to the first American who greeted me so. Discretion being the better part of valour, I did not address the immigration officer like that.

Eventually we emerged into the real America, where thankfully our host was waiting for us. A taxi from Dulles to Q Street in Northwest served us well, but was not cheap. We determined that, except for our return to England on this occasion, we would never go back to Dulles. If things had gone to plan, we never would have.

Tired, we went into the apartment where we would be staying, but after a couple of hours recovering, we felt we were ready for anything. The first things we did, as it was 19:00 in Washington DC and therefore midnight at home, were to telephone our parents and wish them a happy new year. Time zones do mean that this is possible at a civilised time of day. (The Economist recommends that all times should use the twelve-hour clock and be appended with am or pm. This is one of very few points where I part company with their excellent Style Guide, because in common with most, but not all, international airlines, I have chosen to use the twenty-four hour clock. All times I mention are local times: that is, the time you would expect to see on a town-hall clock in good order in the same town, if such a thing exists. I am still mystified why this system of time-keeping causes so much confusion even to otherwise numerate, intelligent people.)

The first meal we ever consumed in the United States was at a small pizza restaurant in Northwest. As is the custom on both sides of the Atlantic, we ordered a pizza to share. This was fair enough, but our order for a starter was misunderstood and we were therefore obliged to share one small portion of mushrooms among three. We were very tired, and afterwards I remember a vision of a pepperoni pizza where the pepperoni was piled on so high that it reached the ceiling. With the pizza we had, this wasn't too far from the truth. After the meal, we went back to the apartment and waited for the American New Year, but I fell asleep and missed it.

1986 had taken us six thousand seven hundred and forty-two miles by air, a distinct improvement on the previous year.


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