Monday, June 25, 2018

My trip to London Bats**t Airport on ClusterJet

I have made it to my AirBnB near Russell Square in time to get a few hours (maybe 5?) of sleep before jumping into the London Festival of Learning conferences tomorrow.

While the ordeal of getting here has consisted entirely of first world problems, it's no less irritating for that because I had first world expectations.

This was my first experience on EasyJet, a discount airline that, to be fair, is really inexpensive. True, for the basic fare you cannot choose your own seats, check any bags, bring more than 1 piece of cabin luggage, get complimentary soft drinks, or use the airline bathroom. OK, I made up the last one, but the others are all true.

They increase their profit margins by keeping planes in the air a lot, and they attract many travelers by serving many destinations. Putting these two constraints together, you realize that a typical EasyJet plane may visit five or six different European cities in a day, and every one of those cities gives it a chance to fall farther behind schedule. My plane was delayed more than an hour coming from Cyprus and Padmos (the announcer mispronounced it "Pathos", which I thought appropriate). The terminal satellites at Geneva are tiny—you can throw a football easily across its hexagonal diameter, and with six gates, it gets really crowded when flights back up. So I did what I always do in such cases, which was to have a drink. I got 40cl of vodka for $12.00.

Boarding on EasyJet works like this. Everyone stands in line, or some approximation of a linear mob, near the boarding gate. (A Brit standing near me described the process as "fairly chaotic," leading me to christen the airline ClusterJet instead.) By the time we actually boarded, some people had been standing in it for over an hour. Your place in line determines whether you are lucky enough to get overhead bin storage. You are allowed exactly one carry-on (unless you're a Preferred Traveler or have paid extra)—not one plus a personal item, or one plus a purse, or one plus a backpack, but exactly one: if it is not attached to your body as clothing, it is an item. If it does not fit under the seat, you can try to find overhead space for it. If you fail to do so, the cost to gate-check is about US$75. I had planned for this, and even though I managed to get overhead space, I could have shoved my bag under the seat.

The airplane itself was amusing. The seats were flimsier than bus seats and do not recline (this saves weight and cuts down maintenance costs). Because of a water plumbing problem at Gatwick where the plane had originated (a malediction on that airport; more on that later), we were informed that there was no drinking water aboard, and warned not to drink from the bathroom faucets. I was going to do that right after washing my hands in the toilet bowl water, but after the warning I reconsidered. They did sell wine though, so all wasn't lost.

By the time we arrived in Gatwick—a third-world airport in a first-world country—we were more than an hour late. Gatwick has a single runway, and discount airlines don't get the perks of going to an actual gate—you get picked up by one of those silly buses that drives you nearly a mile to the actual terminal. Getting off that bus and seeing the line for passport control made it clear I wasn't going to make the last train (11:55pm) to London. (The "EU passports" line actually seemed even worse.)

Gatwick is about 25 miles from London. That doesn't seem far, and the train (when it's running) takes only 35 minutes (not particularly fast for covering that distance). But tonight the motorway (freeway) was closed for construction, so driving to London means using side roads.

Bay Area folks: imagine that you have arrived at San Jose airport for a business trip to SF. The trains have stopped running, and 101 and 280 are closed, so your only option is either a bus that will run all the way to SF along El Camino, or a cab that will do the same but for a much higher price.

I tried summoning an Uber and went to the designated pickup area (across in the short term garage and 4 floors up), but after several minutes the Uber app was still "searching for a driver" even though it had estimated only a 5 minute wait. I gave up on Uber and went to the taxi stand.

I was told a taxi might be available in as little as 20 minutes, and would cost US$ 160 to go to central London, a 90-minute ride.

A gypsy cab driver offered to take me for US $125 so I said yes, since at this point my AirBnB host was probably already in bed, though I'd been messaging her to keep her abreast of my travel misfortunes and asking if there was any way I could get in without waking her.

The cab driver had an app on his phone that would sound an alarm whenever the urban speed limit changed from, say, 40 to 30 km/h or from "slow" to "very slow": buh-bing! buh-bing! buh-bing!  And it would sound whenever we were approaching a speedtrap camera: BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! As London is one of the world's most heavily surveilled cities, one of those two conditions occurs about every 500 meters (Trump voters: "every 5 football fields"), and since he was hard of hearing so he had the app connected by Bluetooth through his car radio: BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! buh-bing! buh-bing! buh-bing!  So the ride sounded a bit like spending 90 minutes in a sad third-world casino.

After an ATM stop (since the driver only accepted cash and I had no UK pounds), during which I was accosted by a local begging for money ("How about just ten quid so I can get me home?") we eventually arrived at what Google Maps said was my destination. Unfortunately every building on the street looked about the same, especially in the dark, and I had to hail my AirBnB host who saw me from her window and directed me to the correct one.

If you wanna know, you gotta go: Gatwick combines the worst features of Dulles—the silly buses to get to the plane—with the worst features of Islip, NY, an airport served by discount carriers that carries the designation "New York area", which is like saying that SFO serves the "Sonoma area".  EasyJet wasn't actually that bad, but the 1-hour delay made Gatwick un-navigable. Like Islip and Dulles, it's an airport whose public transportation shuts down before midnight, leaving passengers with basically no option but a predatorily priced cab ride to get anywhere useful, because believe me Gatwick is in the middle of nowhere—there wasn't even an airport hotel to be found. Whatever savings I thought I was getting by flying EasyJet evaporated, and then some.

The irony is that it took me 7 hours of transit (measuring from Geneva train station) to get here. I could have taken the train and it would have literally been faster (6:51 via Paris), and I would have arrived in London about 3 blocks from where I'm staying. Lesson learned...

Friday, June 22, 2018

All the appliances are neurotic. But that's not really so bad.

In the spirit of keeping it light, I've observed that the appliances here are neurotic.

We had a rental car that had six different sensors placed around its bumpers to warn you of proximity to and possible collisions with nearby objects. Fair enough, but when you're maneuvering into a tight parking spot, every one of those sensors will eventually be close to something, and each sensor has its own nervous little song, so parking or doing a multipoint turn is a small symphony of alarms.

At our AirBnB—whose owner is exceedingly tidy—the refrigerator starts beeping at you if you have the door open more than a few seconds (annoying when doing inventory for shopping); the electric range beeps at you if you have placed something near it while it's heating up, and also if you haven't placed something near it (i.e. a pot) while it's heating up.

I've decided that Switzerland is a bit neurotic, but the neuroses are evenly distributed, so you don't see any obvious crazies but everyone is a little neurotic (or its more affable companion, obsessive-compulsive).

Case in point: The student pub on campus stops serving beer at 8:30. (Yes, you read that right. The student pub stops serving beer at 8:30.)  I was denied a beer at 8:33. Désolé, c'est le règle. There are a lot of rules here. Don't get me wrong: as an engineer, I appreciate rules. Without them, you have chaos. With them, you have order, predictability, unambiguity. Everything here works as it's supposed to: things that should be clean are clean (except the public restrooms, which are unspeakable), things that should be quaint are quaint, and things that should be modern and sleek are modern and sleek. And it is delightful that (e.g.) the public transportation here, even the buses, is highly predictable; if you have to make a 2-minute connection, you will very likely make it. Only here and in Japan would I risk such a thing. Having rules that people respect means that drinking in public is fine, because almost nobody will overdo it and become a jerk. I do wonder, though, if sometimes the rules could be bent just a little.

Yesterday, for example, I tried showing up for a haircut without an appointment. The place wasn't busy, and at least a couple of stylists didn't seem to be otherwise engaged. But I didn't have an appointment. So they asked me to come back in about an hour, and made me an appointment.

At any rate, it's not necessarily a bad tradeoff. Everything works very well here and it makes it easy to get around. In a future post I'll compare my perceptions of student life at EPFL with UC Berkeley.

À bientôt…

Monday, June 11, 2018

The 6-month sabbatical adventure begins

Today was the first day of a 6-month sabbatical (for Armando)/vacation (for Tonia), which will feature 3 months in Lausanne, Switzerland (Armando visiting EPFL) and 3 months in Seville, Spain (Armando visiting U. Sevilla).

I don’t blog well, but people asked me to blog, so.

We both love traveling and deal with it well. But I also believe travel makes you appreciate things you take for granted about your own life.

In that spirit, consider the shower configuration at the AirBnB we just moved into (for a nominal 3 month stay) near Lausanne.

The question, of course, is: How, in this configuration, does one shower thoroughly without soaking the bathroom?

Note the mounting of the shower head. You would think that if you sit in the corner, penitent, aiming only a light spray of water at yourself, you could avoid back-splashing water onto the floor. You would  be wrong. The floor is, of course, polished marble, so it's lethally slippery when wet.

If one tries to stand, the shower head cannot be moved above face level. Of the possible orientations the showerhead can assume, more than 3/4 of them spray directly into the rest of the bathroom. Changing the angle of the shower head with respect to the perpendicular is not possible. There is, sadistically, no bath mat or even spare towel to absorb the inevitable overspray.

To me, this is incomprehensible austerity.

As I write this, I am clean, but the dirty clothing I removed was pressed into service as a floor towel before being thrown in the hamper. A better way must be found. Tonia discovered that if you sit on the floor of the tub, you can do much better splash-wise.

On the upside: the house has a baby grand Ritmüller piano (the bass is a bit tubby, but hey, a piano!), our German housemate Pieter is away 4-day weekends with his family in Brussels so we frequently have the upper floor to ourselves, we had a pizza for dinner that didn’t suck, and a thunderstorm is happening now, which is rare in the Bay Area.

So it should be an interesting experience. Stay tuned for more posts that may make some things sound worse than they really are, because this is going to be great.

Now…melatonin, ho.