I have never flown.
The preceding statement is not actually strictly true; when I was about eight years old we went on holiday to France and I believe we travelled by air. I remember nothing of this experience, however, other than having to stay at a hotel near Gatwick Airport and having to get up very early in the morning and wait in the cold for the coach to arrive to take us to the airport. We went to France one more time - we must have travelled by ferry or something, this was before the Channel Tunnel was open for regular use. After that we didn't really have the cash to visit further afield than Southwold in Suffolk. The only other time in living memory when I've been abroad is the well-recorded Belgium Beer Project, for which we again travelled by ferry, which was a mistake. In short I am not the most well-traveled individual, and have never had occasion to fly in an aeroplane while I've been old enough to remember and write about my experiences. Doubtless everybody reading this has flown a million times, so forgive me if I repeat some very tired observations as if they were entirely new. They are, to me.
Despite nearly unanimous advice to the contrary and the £16.00 additional fee, I elected to bring one item of hold luggage. It made figuring out the whole "liquids" thing a non-issue ("I can't bring chemicals through the security checkpoint? But that's practically all I'm made of!") and, for reasons which will be elaborated upon, I was bringing a sleeping bag and an airbed, which left no further room in my largest hand-luggage-sized rucksack for such necessities as clean socks. This established, I made relatively little effort to travel light and brought my slightly more voluminous towel and pyjamas.
Since acquiring my car (see previous posts) I had discovered I had been driving everywhere. I have to drive to work, out of necessity ("where we're going, we don't have pavement"), and I can now pop to Sainsbury's in two minutes when it was previously a 60-minute round trip on foot. As a reaction to this I've consciously switched back to walking wherever I can, just to appease the Exercise Gods, with whom I must admit I have little karma. I've walked the length (but not the breadth) of Winchester a few times now, including walking to the station for trips further afield. So I thought, "The walk will do me good, I will carry my holdall to the station." Well, evidently I did not pay enough for my holdall, or perhaps my clothes are more dense than lab testing allowed for, because the shoulder strap snapped before I even reached the station. The canvas loop was fine, but the metal link at one end had simply twisted off. Feh!
A wise man once said that there is a good reason why the phrase "as beautiful as an airport" does not exist in the English language. A friend of mine has also remarked that the reason airports are such miserable, boring places is that automated facial recognition software cannot comprehend smiles. A neutral (i.e. depressed or sullen) facial expression is necessary for an accurate match, so under no circumstances should fliers be entertained or amused when they arrive at passport control. London Stansted Airport is an extremely vast, fairly boring cuboid, with a cavernous ceiling and walls placed on the floor to direct human traffic.
The process of flying is not immediately clear to the absolute newcomer. For example, I would have thought that the security check would be the last thing performed before anybody got onto the plane, and I would also have thought that all of the various shops and restaurants would be on the "public, unsecured" area of the floor, so I nearly ended up waiting until my departure time before approaching the security points. However, I thought better of this and lo and behold, there are even more shops, some of them even duplicates, on the far side. I counted at least four distinct W. H. Smith's outlets alone. Maybe next time I'll figure out this "duty free" thing as well.
I had booked EasyJet and the process was indeed spectacularly simple once I had figured it out. There was no line at check-in and checking in took all of fifteen seconds. Passing security was the simplest thing in the world, since I was capable of reading and following instructions.
Tangent. As a software engineer I automatically look for ways to break things. Fault-tolerance, if you will. Several "hacks" on the UK security theatre came to mind as I was killing time (and eating my packed lunch) before going through security. One of them, since all of my toiletries were in my hold luggage, was to take the four clear bottles with me anyway, secreting 100ml of Irn Bru in each bottle instead, and drink them once airborne. Another one was to bring a seemingly empty sealed water bottle with me, but actually have some poisonous, colourless, odourless gas stored inside it, for possible future uncorking. There might be dogs who'd detect that, though.
Stansted has a small metro service to the terminals. (Amusingly, overhead announcements repeatedly refer to the train vehicle as a "transit", e.g. "Do not leave any belongings behind on the transit.") I imagine that is pretty much universal in other airports. I got a good seat overlooking the runway at the departure gate and settled down to some plane-watching.
Maybe it was my elevation and distance from the runway, but jet aeroplanes plainly have absolutely no business being in the air. They leave the ground at a frighteningly low airspeed, and when they lift off, which by definition is the point at which the lift from the wings only just exceeds the pull of gravity, the beast appears to be lumbering into the air, clawing its way upwards by borrowing gravitational potential energy from nowhere at all. At this point, more than at any time in the flight, the plane looks like a creature of the ground, being dragged away into the sky by invisible forces and pure chance.
I had to walk across tarmac to reach the plane, and then climb a set of mobile stairs in front of the peacefully idling port turbine, something I was hesitant about on account of having seen movies. From the inside of the plane the experience is a little more exhilarating but a lot more tedious. This was an Airbus A319 and I sat in the middle of one of the middle exit rows - apparently they have more leg room, but I didn't know that, I just got lucky. Planes are narrow, cramped, submarine-like machines, only marginally more spacious than coaches and only marginally more comfortable than trains; if they could, I'm sure the engineers would design them without windows. More than anything else, what struck me about this miracle of modern engineering is how tedious, pedestrian and conventional the entire experience is. It's been reduced to three hours of waiting (under optimal conditions) and a hastily recited safety script by the cabin staff. Security theatre? Safety theatre. Take-off was exciting, mid-course corrections at the beginning of the flight were nauseating, the view from the porthole as we banked north was fantastic (we were so low at that point that one could convince oneself that one could dive out of the window and into that guy's pool), and the flight itself was extremely tedious. The cabin crew tried to sell us scratch cards. People creating advertisements as a career, I can understand, but people being required to verbally deliver advertisements as part of a totally different job? That kind of thing makes me itch. The chairs were comfy but there was no way to sleep in them when I was the middle guy, without leaning on somebody else, so I fidgeted and read my book ("Halting State" by Charles Stross, since you asked). Kids find scary things scary and start crying when confusing things like flight happen around them, but the white noise of cruising speed drowns them out pretty well in combination with headphones (not even playing music, necessarily). The worst part is the fairly lengthy period of just sitting still waiting between 1) hitting tarmac at the other end of the flight and 2) everybody in front of you having got out of your way so you can collect your stuff and move. We're here, I'm restless, let me get walking already! Unavoidable, of course.
Copenhagen Airport is spoken of as one of the best in Europe. This is as good as it gets, apparently? It wasn't substantially slicker than Stansted, though slightly more tasteful and a lot bigger. I strode off to reclaim my baggage and this was the first time occurred to me that I was now in a foreign country whose language I did not speak, solo, for the first time ever ever. That's probably fairly routine for most of the people reading this, but I was mildly excited.
I'd been advised to personalise my luggage in some way to make it recognisable. Someone in the chatterbox suggested attaching a brightly-coloured scarf, which was impossible since I own no brightly coloured anything. Eventually I had tied a bright orange Sainsbury's plastic carrier bag in knots around one handle until it could be knotted no more. It worked as well as it could have been expected to work. Baggage arrived in a timely fashion and was not mistakenly delivered to some other country, as I'm told is so commonplace. My passport was glanced at and that was it, job done. Flight over.
Overall, after that one flight, I would say that flying is: a way to get to somewhere. At the very best case scenario it's boring as heck. I guess it's when stuff goes wrong that it becomes nightmarish?
Dimview met me at the airport and we hung around for about an hour waiting for Wntrmute to arrive too. We had coffee, which in my case is invariably metaphorical since I do not drink coffee. I had water. Hers was so thick that stirring it with a stirrer and then letting go of the stirrer resulted in the stirrer continuing to stir itself for several seconds afterwards. (Stir.) I produced the vodka which was her birthday present. It was her birthday on April 1, 2009, hence the nodermeet.
We left the airport via the Metro. The Copenhagen Metro has only two lines and is a fairly recent construction, and it (like probably most metro systems in the world) puts the London Underground to shame by being spacious, clean, fast, smooth, comfortable, non-vandalised, brightly lit, and so on. The Tube is pushing 150 years old so it's understandable that it would have its faults, I guess (I mean, somebody has to make all the mistakes before everybody else can learn from them), but it's nice to have a train which is tall enough for me to stand upright, and which (because there is no driver) allows you to sit at the front and watch the tunnel shoot past, which is worth doing because unlike the Tube the Copenhagen Metro is not painted entirely black inside. In fact it is a rather pleasing light brown and appears to be a cylinder constructed of interlocking concrete jigsaw pieces. Down the side is a continuous platform which stranded passengers could theoretically use to escape in the event of an emergency, in constrast to the Tube where the clearance on both sides and the top of the train is measured in millimetres. It reminded me of the introductory sequence to Half-Life, which is another way of saying that the introductory sequence to Half-Life is reminiscent of the Copenhagen Metro.
The Metro is paid for using a system of "clip cards" which you have to have punched by a machine a certain number of times, depending on how far you are going. Clip cards cannot be purchased at Metro stations, which is a little puzzling. I guess all cities have their quirks. We changed at Christianshavn and rode south to Sundby, outside of which is a wide area featuring what at first glance appeared to be a miserable excuse for a skate park and at second glance a miserable excuse for modern art. On that, more later. The island of Amager is extremely wide and flat, and it's suburban residential as far as the eye can see, with the airport behind it, followed by plain undeveloped land and finally sea behind that, so the entire time I was there I had the distinct impression that there was not enough horizon. No distant hills and forests. A curious sensation. (True, I studied in Cambridge, which is also extremely flat, but then Cambridge is a huge tall busy city as well so the horizon is never visible.)
Danish architecture is wonderful. I feel slightly embarrassed when I find the most mundane features of other countries exciting, but it's as if the Danes just don't know how to build unattractive buildings, as if entire horrible architectural epochs just passed them by. Everything, from the Metro to the residential buildings (houses, I suppose) to the lamp posts (or, in many cases, networks of simple lamps suspended from wires criss-crossing the street) to the paving stones screams understated style.
The place where we were staying was The Labyrinth, the day care centre where Dimview works, which was closed, presumably for the Easter holidays. The Labyrinth has unlimited floor space, as well as a kitchen, shower, and copious computers. With a play area behind it, and a Netto supermarket within a few minutes' walk, this was closer to the high ideals of the Everything2, Kansas concept than anything I had previously seen. There, Dimview, Wntrmute and I met DTal and Evil Catullus who had already arrived the previous day. We amused ourselves with picking sleeping space and then playing with soft foam-filled geometric shapes (at one point building a tower taller than me, and various bed-like constructions), and then Evil Catullus, Dimview and I headed to Netto (which is the ONLY supermarket chain in Denmark, as far as I can tell) to buy provisions. We took Dimview's trailer with us, a big cuboidal box intended for towing behind a bicycle. (We just pulled it.) (Due to its geometry, it was deceptively easy to not chain it up properly.) Netto is a big yellow and black edifice and it seemed to have a lot of different products competing for shelf space - the supermarket felt untidy, crowded with haphazardly-placed product. Big sturdy plastic shopping trolleys, though. To fetch one (to convey our purchases from the checkout to the trailer), having only banknotes, I had to run outside with a coin nicked from Evil Catullus. We bought lots of meat and pasta, towed it home and were shooed away while Dimview made lasagna. After this delicious big hot meal, we huddled together over laptop computers, chatterboxing with one another and the rest of E2 (in the guise of the "Copenhagen Hive Mind") for the first time, nibbling Pringles and cracking our way through some 24 bottles of passable and highly drinkable Danish Classic 110 as if they were lemonade.
We started the Wall Of Shame A.K.A. the Beerometer, a row of all the beer bottles we had finished during the meet. More on that later.
A bottle of 38% Gammel Dansk Bitter was produced - it was the most disgusting alcoholic drink I've ever tasted, bar none. It was all disposed of by the end of the week, but certainly not by me. Keep it on the tip of your tongue, advised Evil Catullus, but that just made the tip of my tongue hurt and then the back of my throat burn with horrors unnameable. Turpentine, rubbing alcohol.
"Dimview, why does this day care centre have shot glasses?"