As I left Toronto nearly two weeks ago, I remember wondering when I would return. Eyjafjallajokull had begun erupting again in Iceland, and European airspace was descending back into turmoil. I didn't sleep much before leaving, nor on the flights over, which took a much more southerly route than usual to avoid the ash cloud. Geoff Brousson picked me up at Malta airport together with Nigel Richards, and drove us to the Hotel Victoria in Sliema, a fishing village-turned-seaside-resort, where Amy Byrne's European Open would take place over the next four days. I took a brief nap in my hotel room, just long enough to regain my mental equilibrium, then spent a few hours setting up the seven Dell laptops and printer (all generously loaned by Dell Malta) that would be used to run the event.
The tournament ran fairly smoothly. The worst glitches were having to move two players from the B division to the A division after Round 1 had started, and therefore having to replace a round robin with a Swiss schedule; and not realizing until the end of the tournament that Amy and I were sitting in the hottest, least comfortable part of the playing room. To nobody's surprise, Nigel Richards not only won the A division, but was Gibsonized early enough to let him spend most of the last day out sightseeing on his bicycle. Jayne MacKenzie, something of a ringer returning to play after a decade's hiatus, was Gibsonized in division B.
I felt more tired after the tournament, but thought I could catch up on rest on my two off days before the Malta International Scrabble Open (MISO) was to begin. I didn't, but I had a lot of fun with Geoff, Theresa and their guests Helen Gipson and Karen Richards instead. Theresa arranged a harbour cruise for forty of us one day, where I got to see for myself what the invading navies in the great siege of Malta in 1565 had to face, then took me to the Mdina Glass factory for gift shopping. The next day, we took the ferry to Gozo, enjoying fresh local seafood at a restaurant in the picturesque town of Xlendi, a tour of the Citadel of Gozo, and a swim at Ramla Bay (the legendary site of Calypso's cave). Next time I return to Ramla Bay, I must remember to go swimming at the sandy part of the beach, especially if the Mediterranean is as rough as it was that day.
All too soon, it was time for the three-day MISO event at the Suncrest Hotel in Qawra. In theory, I had a better room at the Suncrest, but I missed the Victoria, which had all that I wanted: high-speed wired Internet in my guest room, extremely helpful staff and a good restaurant buffet. While my room was an immense suite at the Suncrest, it had slower-than-dialup WiFi (the front desk staff said it had none, and they weren't far off), the TV couldn't be tuned correctly, it took a 15-minute argument to get permission to carry food from the hotel restaurant to the playing room (at the Victoria, the bartender volunteered to bring it to me himself when they were short-staffed), and the buffet food was okay but monotonous.
The event ran fine. The big surprise there was that Nigel didn't win, though he finished in third place. Mohammad Sulaiman from Pakistan had an outstanding tournament, finishing 16-5 +1494, ahead of Craig Beevers on spread and a game ahead of Nigel. Theresa and the Malta Scrabble Club did a fabulous job of recruiting sponsors to help with all aspects of running the tournament. Dell provided all the computer equipment again, Vascas Jewellers donated beautiful prize plates (of which I received one as a thankyou), the Maltese government helped fund my travel, and several other sponsors made in-kind and cash donations.
I managed to squeeze in four games of Scrabble along the way myself. I beat Karen Richards once in a blowout, again in a closer game, then lost a close one to Theresa at her house; then was on the winning side in a Scotland vs. the world team match at Ramla Bay, which to be fair was wone by Theresa's brilliant XENURINE play.
What I enjoyed most about my stay in Malta was the unrelenting hospitality offered to me by my hosts at every possible occasion. My every need was catered to before I was even aware of it, freeing me up to concentrate fully on work, just the way I like it.
A close second I think was getting to know Amy Byrne, Helen Gipson and Karen Richards a little better and a little more personally. I knew they were each truly dedicated to my favourite game, but it's been fun getting to know them as real people too.
But boy, did I feel exhausted by Sunday night. It didn't help that Geoff had passed on internal British Airways gossip that Heathrow would be closed for my return on Monday. At 2:00 A.M. on Sunday morning, I realized that the best thing for me to do would be to change my return flight from Monday morning to Sunday night, to try to beat the ash cloud to London. As of the Sunday morning forecast from the Met Office, it looked like the ash would hit around midnight, so a flight arriving at 22:50 might just make it. Geoff lent me his cellphone for a 15-minute call to Air Malta, and a substantial change fee later, I was all set. I was originally supposed to fly with Helen Gipson; my new flight was with Karen Richards, Ed Martin and Simon Rosenstone.
Theresa drove Ed and me to the airport through heavy end-of-weekend traffic in plenty of time, thanks to her driving acumen and the millisecond reflexes she hones daily on the squash court. We checked in, I enjoyed some pastizzi from the airport cafe where I had breakfast last year, then joined Karen at the gate.
When we arrived at Gatwick, we went our separate ways, promising to keep in touch online. The immigration officer told me he was looking forward to an early night tonight: while I was in the air, NATS had announced that UK airspace would be closed two hours after my arrival; I had made the right decision. I would have an extra day in Cambridge, and not have to deal with a cancelled flight, booking emergency accommodation, rebooking a flight home later and returning with half a suitcase of Cambridge-bound gifts undelivered.
Carl Rasmussen showed up at LGW to pick me up for the two-hour drive to Cambridge before I even had time to Facebook that I was waiting for him. It was eery seeing the M25 deserted (despite the lack of nighttime tolls) (you still have to stop at the tollbooth to be told that you owe no toll), and we made good time, despite a brief stop for fuel along the way, and had fun chatting and catching up during the drive.
I then had two days off at Agnes and Carl's house with their beautiful boys, who are just a little older than hours and always give me a hint of what my future will be like. Their older one, for instance, is sadly beyond the age of hugs, so I'd better get mine in with Jamie before he reaches it too. Both the boys had been eagerly anticipating my annual return. The younger one in particular appears to believe I am superhuman, and was given to saying things about me that reminded me of the Chuck Norris Facts website.
As requested, I picked him up the younger boy from school each day, and we spent a lot of time unlocking levels of New Super Mario Bros. on their Nintendo DS. The older one can play about as well as Liam; the younger one almost as well. I'm sure they would be doing much better, except they have a house rule that video games are only for weekends. My stay was declared to be a weekend for gaming purposes, which confused them a little, as they asked every now and then whether other weekend rules (e.g., no school) also applied for my stay. We also played Super Mario 63 and World of Goo.
The first day, Agnes and I went book-shopping for my family, had lunch at the Michaelhouse Cafe (a church mostly converted into a cafe with a daily changing menu), and walked back home through the Backs (saw a double helix monument to Watson and Crick at Clare College) in time to go punting on the Cam with the boys after school, in a Darwin College punt named the Velociraptor. Carl did almost all of the actual poling of the punt. I gave it a try, but found it surprisingly difficult to get the punt to go in the right direction and stay out of the underbrush overhanging the banks.
I cooked salmon for the family (something of a tradition), accompanied by broccoli, green beans, bok choi and rice (mostly prepared by Agnes). As it was a Monday night, it almost felt like I was visiting Daniel and Ross for our regular Monday salmon grill.
Tuesday, we did a little more shopping, had lunch with Carl at Wagamama (I had the chilli chicken ramen), took a very brief look at the FitzWilliam museum and gift shop (with a mental note to return later), then went back home. Agnes was fighting a cold, so I went to pick up her younger son (the older one was in chess club), and looked after both of them (and their DS) while she took a long nap. For dinner, Agnes and I had venison burgers that I had picked up at a farmers' shop (I cooked), with salad (she prepared) and bread. Yum. (Carl and the boys were at a cub scouts dinner.)
While I repacked for the final time, had dessert, settled accounts, and chatted, we watched an almost campy DVD tour of Cambridge, presented by a woman in a safari suit credited as Lady Julia Ramsbottom. I've been unable to find out anything more about this masterpiece online, but am surprised it isn't a hit cult movie yet.
I felt right at home again on the morning of my departure, as I was woken up by kids quietly (they thought) seeing if I was awake enough to play video games. After a quick breakfast (and yes, DS games), I said goodbye to Carl and the boys, and Agnes and I biked to the National Express stop at Parker's Piece, Cambridge, me on their folding bike following Agnes on her bike pulling a trailer full of luggage.
The bus ride (via Luton) was uneventful and on schedule, taking 2:50 to drop me off at the Heathrow Central Bus Terminal shortly before noon. (The CBT is a short walk from any of Terminals 1, 2 or 3; the bus continues on to the more distant Terminals 4 and 5.) I found the check-in area, went to the bathroom to get changed out of comfortable bus-wear (T-shirt and shorts) and into flight check-in attire (business casual), and repack my carry-on bags with just the things that attract security attention in my canvas bag (laptop, camera, liquids, gels, computer cables, and a dental mirror that looks surprisingly pointy when scanned). I was delayed briefly checking in at the priority desk (65,000 miles flown with Air Canada last year help smooth the way) by an airport quality assurance survey taker who wanted to know how long it had taken me to get to the check-in desk and whether or not I had visited the toilet en route (yes, see above, and I'm old enough not to have to be reminded).
The check-in agent was polite as always, and gave me directions to the London Lounge (a/k/a Airline Lounge B, one of ten at Terminal 3 alone), even though it turned out the route was clearly signed. The only slightly confusing thing in fact is that the actual departure level is one floor above the check-in level. There was no wait at security, and not even any staff at passport control. I first saw unmanned passport desks at CUN, and strongly approve: if the airlines have all our passport information, they might as well pass it on to the government to save us having to line up to show it to a government official.
The London Lounge was at the end of a very large shopping/dining area; I must have walked past fifty (and into a few) shops to get to it. It's operated by SAS for some of their StarAlliance partners including Air Canada, and even if it wasn't clearly signed, you could tell from the Scandinavian interior design and choice of buffet foods. The lounge has an upper and lower level offering many of the same services. I found the most comfortable seating to be on the upper level, where big (possibly IKEA) armchairs alternate with wide side tables and electrical outlets for laptops. If I didn't have my laptop with me, I probably would have sat at one of the dozens of desktop machines. If I had the boys with me, it would have been the kids' theatre area for sure. I picked up a Swedish newspaper for my dad, and the Globe and Mail and the Times for myself. There was a space for Japanese newspapers too, but it was unstocked, possibly because there weren't any Japanese flights due to take off for a while. For lunch, I had a salad, ramen noodles, some sort of yummy Scandinavian dish consisting of unidentified bits in a cold white sauce (possible identification to follow), an apple, and far, far too many stem ginger cookies.
I learn that our aircraft has been replaced, not due to a malfunction as some loungemates speculated, but because a B777 will hold almost 100 more passengers than an A-330, and Air Canada still has a large backlog of ash-stranded passengers from the last couple of days.
At 14:15, 45 minutes before the scheduled 15:00 departure, I pack up and walk for Gate 31. A sign outside warns that it's a 20-minute walk away, but I pay it no heed, as I know that's a worst-case scenario. As it turns out, only one of several moving walkways is out of service, and the walk takes me only ten minutes. As I approach the gate, I see about 300 of the 400 passengers for my flight queued up outside the secure gate area waiting for processing. I walk to the head of the line and flash my Aeroplan Elite card, am waved through and the person who thought he was about to be served sarcastically calls out "Thank you!" I suppress a smirk of schadenfreude. It's nearly boarding time, and I go to sit down to check for Internet access. I hear my name paged, and go back to the counter, checking to see if I've forgotten my boarding pass or passport. No, the agent was just routinely reprinting boarding passes for everyone (hence the queue), because the change of aircraft meant that everyone who had printed up their own boarding passes at home had the wrong seat assignment, a sure recipe for disaster. She checks to see that the boarding pass I was issued at checkin matches the reprint, apologizes, and waves me back.
As I walk back to my seat, another agent, who I had noticed was mesmerized by a scrolling list of passenger manifest updates, calls out my name. Now what? Because all the stranded first-class passengers have already been flown out, Air Canada has a large surplus of economy-class passengers. Would I mind making room for one of them by receiving an upgrade to first class? I suppose I can handle it.
This time I walk straight to the plane and straight to my seat, which is the same kind of pod I am used to flying in on the Toronto-Tokyo run. It's got a larger video screen than usual (I think 12") with a corded remote (handier than one might think, because I have to stretch just a little to reach the touchscreen), an individual 110 VAC outlet (and not one that has to be shared with a seatmate), a seat that adjusts four different ways (back tilt, headrest tilt, four-way lumbar support, foot, footrest tilt, as well as program buttons to put it into full horizontal mode for sleeping or full upright mode for takeoff and landing), a laptop storage pocket that I didn't notice last time, pillow, blanket, water bottle, complimentary accessory kit (toothbrush, toothpaste, blindfold, socks). And glasses rather than plastic cups, and metal utensils. The toilet has a full-length mirror, and a window that fills the room with natural light.
The flight attendant comes by with orange juice and champagne (Champagne Drappier, Carte d'Or Brut, Reims) at the beginning of the flight. I take a glass of champagne. As soon as we're in the air, she comes back to ask for our dinner main course choice (I'll have the lamb, not the chicken, red snapper or risotto) and offer an o-shibori (hot cloth to wipe your face and hands).
The purser just announced "If there are any passengers who have dropped red books with Arabic writing in them, please identify yourselves." I'll refrain from making a stereotypical joke here, as aircraft security is nothing to laugh about.
I peruse the choice of 56 on-demand films but none of them pique my interest. What I really want to do is to watch True Lies yet again, but I'm afraid to make a habit of it. I start to watch a Michael Caine movie called "Harry Brown" in the Avant Garde section, but the opening sequence cinematography is a little too jerky and hyperviolent to my taste. Also, the Sennheiser NoiseGuard headphones are about a centimetre too short to comfortably sit on my head. And I may have seen enough Michael Caine movies. I'll try a Woody Harrelson film called "The Messenger" instead, about soldiers whose duty it is to inform the next-of-kin of slain soldiers.
The flight attendant comes by to offer drinks, munchies and to spread out my tablecloth. Lunch followed in short order. Eschewing menu capitals, I was served: smoked salmon rosettes with lemon, capers and red onion on pumpernickel bread, a salad of mesclun leaves with grated carrots and pine nuts served with balsamic vinaigrette, grilled rack of lamb au jus presented with mustard mash and mixed vegetables, brown bread rolls with semi-salted butter, a cheese plate (Somerset Camembert, Quickes Farmhouse Cheddar, Saint-Paulin), and vanilla Ice Cream (without the warm signature chocolate lava cake).
"The Messenger" turns out to be surprisingly similar to George Clooney's "Up in the Air": they both tell the story about someone learning the job of delivering bad and unexpected news to people. "The Messenger" was much more moving though, with its powerful antiwar message about the effect that war has on families and the stateside social fabric. It was so emotionally heavy, I didn't feel like watching another film right away, so while I was typing this, I left on 30 Rock episodes S4E5 and S4E6.
I think I'm ready for another one now, so I'll try Michael Cera's "Youth In Revolt", which looks promising, especially as it shares Steve Buscemi in common with "The Messenger". It would have been funnier if Air Canada had carried any of the 30 Rock episodes that featured Buscemi.
I liked "Youth In Revolt" as well, though it's hard to say which I preferred of two such different films. Cera's dual role as his good and evil selves is hard to beat; and next to his deadpan acting (in both roles), Buscemi's usual over-the-top performance is even more surreal.
According to "inROUTE(TM) powered by AIRSHOW(TM)", we're flying up the St. Lawrence, halfway between Sept-Iles and Chicoutimi. I was going to try to get a little sleep, but the hot towels just came through again, so I suspect there's food on the way. The menu suggests it may be the "pre-arrival light meal" of a grilled turkey and gruyere croque-monsieur, accompanied by freshly baked cookies, which explains the aroma of chocolate wafting through the cabin.
Absent a James Bond film from the on-demand video repertoire, I've decided to spend the rest of my flight enjoying Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Arnold, Jamie Lee Curtis and a young Eliza Dushku in the movie "True Lies', which I could happily watch once a week. Arnold's talents are wasted in politics.
The rest of the flight and the trip home from the airport were without memorable incident. As I tried to climb the porch steps into my house, a neighbour noticed that I was home and started asking about my trip. The boys heard my voice and came running out of the house to knock me over, then dragged me off to play in the yard for an hour. My parents drove over to greet me. Kristen and Laraine eventually noticed either the commotion outside or the quiet inside and came out to see what was going on. Presents were distributed, acquaintances re-established. I was hoping for a day to try to recover from jet-lag but it doesn't seem like that's in the cards; I'll just try to muddle along as best as I can in this timezone until I've caught up. At some point in the next few days I have to edit down the 800 photos I took down to 40 or so to post online. Thanks for reading this far!