Three Backpacks, Two Backs

three packs two backs

The first thing Elizabeth and I did after we arrived in London on Tuesday morning was repack our baggage. We did this before we even exited the baggage claim area in Heathrow.

That’s what you do when you have three backpacks and only two backs. I suppose it should have occurred to us before we left Edmonton that our choice of luggage (one large suitcase, one carry-on, one 60-litre backpack, two daypacks, and two small purses) was going to cause a problem once we deplaned, but we’re so used to renting a car when we land in a foreign city – i.e., just throwing everything into the trunk — that we hadn’t given much thought to the challenges we’d face trying to maneuver all of that, plus ourselves, on the hour-long Tube journey from Heathrow to the centre of London.

And so it was that Elizabeth carried the giant backpack on her back and toted my purple carry-on suitcase, which was so stuffed that whenever she let go of the handle (which she did a lot – first when we bought our Oyster cards for the Tube, then when she had to pull it out to go through various turnstiles), the suitcase immediately pitched over, like a drunken sailor.

On the Tube, I sat at the end of a row of seats so I could place the by-now morbidly obese large suitcase next to me and hold onto it. Unfortunately, the powers that be who designed the Tube cars decided that it was necessary to install large sheets of Plexiglas to separate the seats from the doors.

There is an opening of a few inches between where the seats end and the Plexiglas begins. If I angled my hand just right, I could grip the suitcase handle to keep it steady. But sometimes I needed my hand to steady the oversized backpack, which we could fit only on the seat next to me. (Elizabeth was across the aisle.) Whenever I let go of the suitcase, it rolled away. At one point it nearly took out three Russian-speaking men standing near the door.

Riding the Tube with nearly 100 pounds of luggage requires planning (not to mention incredible stupidity). Elizabeth and I began plotting our exit from the subway a half hour before our destination, Russell Square. Three stops before the train reached Russell Square, we began donning the backpacks. One stop before we stood up. Meanwhile, everyone sitting around us (mostly men in their twenties) watched us with unabashed glee.

It was comforting to be surrounded by strange men who were laughing at our expense, as opposed to nearly coming to blows, which is what had transpired about midway through our nine-hour flight to London the night before. It was about 11 p.m MST., just as we were falling asleep after a lovely meal (not) of airplane food, that the man behind me leapt out of his seat, swearing at full volume, yelling about something hitting him on the head.

I had an immediate post-traumatic-stress-disorder flashback to our 2009 trip to Hawaii, when Dave was sitting next to a man who got punched in the face by another man who was sitting across the aisle. (It’s a long story. If you want to hear it, ask nicely, and I will blog about it.) That trip ended with the puncher demanding justice and the punchee being escorted off the plane in Kona by air marshals, whereupon he was hauled off to jail.

I was positive this was going to be a repeat experience. Leaping Man, a nondescript white guy in his late 50s or early 60s, was furious and would not drop the issue. “What the hell were you doing?” he yelled at the pint-sized, elderly, east Indian owner of the offending cane. “You don’t put your cane up there that way so it can fall out and hit someone on the head! What were you thinking? That’s not how you put something in the overhead bin.”

By this point I was cowering, wondering where the flight attendants were and why they weren’t trying to calm down Leaping Man. The fellow across the aisle from me, another east Indian guy, probably in his 40s, must have been thinking the same thing, because he decided to intervene.

Unfortunately, his tactic — to blame faulty aircraft design and defend his elder — did not have the desired effect. In fact, all it did was further inflame Leaping Man.

“It’s got nothing to do with the design,” Leaping Man snapped. “It’s all his fault. If he’d been more careful, it wouldn’t have happened.”

“He couldn’t help it,” Defender Man insisted. “It’s the airplane! The overhead compartment angles down! Anything you put in is going to fall out.”

(This was not true as far as I could tell. Then again, I am shorter than the elderly east Indian guy so I really couldn’t see that well. I am basing my assessment on the fact that my suitcase did not fall on anyone’s head when I opened my overhead bin at the end of the flight.)

“He just threw the thing up there!” Leaping Man continued, piling on with a series of insults, not all of which I heard clearly because I was keeping my head covered in anticipation of the punches.

However, I did hear this, the piece d’resistance from Defender Man: “It’s not because he’s an Indian!”

“I didn’t say it was because he was an Indian!” Leaping Man retorted. “I said it’s because he’s an idiot.

It was around then that I looked up, just in time to spot a flight attendant walking down the aisle opposite ours. I called out to her. “Excuse me! Excuse me!” She walked on as if she had not heard. I suppose I could understand her not having heard me, but she was directly across from where the two men were yelling at each other and she was oblivious.

That’s when Elizabeth and I each pressed our call buttons. About a half hour later, long after everyone had calmed down (and, mercifully, no one had been punched) a flight attendant came and asked someone sitting near me if they’d pressed the call button. The person said no.

I piped up that I had pressed my call button. I started to explain why, as quietly as I could, to keep Leaping Man from hearing and getting riled up all over again. Sadly, my effort was wasted. Leaping Man jumped in like a well-rehearsed one-man Greek chorus, reliving his near-death experience. Defending Man interrupted and began postulating, again, about poor airplane designs, and I gave up because I could not believe I’d opened the can of worms again when all I’d wanted was to find out why nobody had come to help us when we were in what could have turned into a very ugly situation.

Maybe if I’d felt better it wouldn’t have bothered me so much, but I was fighting a horrible cold. I was sneezing and blowing my nose so much that I made screaming babies look like ideal seat partners. Toward the end of the flight, a few hours after the fracas had died down, I made yet another pilgrimage to the bathroom for tissues. The flight attendants were hanging out in the galley at the back, chatting.

I took the opportunity to ask, one more time, why nobody had come to our rescue when the guy behind me went ballistic. “We didn’t hear it,” one of the flight attendants explained.

“But you were right across the aisle from where it was happening,” I said. “I tried to get your attention.”

“Well, you hear things differently when you’re sitting than when you’re walking,” she said, gesturing with her hands to make the point that some noise is five and a half feet in the air and some is four feet, and she won’t hear anything unless it’s at least her height (well over four feet).

Also, she said, unless someone hits the call button, the flight attendants have no way of knowing everything that’s going on.

“But we did hit our call buttons,” I said. “My daughter and I both did.”

“Do you know how many people hit those call buttons?” another flight attendant asked. “People hit them thinking they’re turning up the volume on their movie screens. The volume control is on the movie screen!”

This led to a discussion about the newest jets in the Air Canada fleet, which have all the entertainment controls on the armrest, so that as soon as you put your arm down you turn off your movie. In other words, just as Defending Man said, poor airplane design. Which is small comfort to someone (i.e., me) who is pressing the call button because they actually want to see a flight attendant.

Maybe I should stick to road trips from now on. (Although, unfortunately, a road trip isn’t an option when you’re in North America and need to travel to England.)







4 Responses

  1. Only you two… I would definitely send a link to this post to whatever airline you flew.

    • And how do I do that? asks the Luddite in Leeds.

  2. Hi Debbie, long time since we connected. Must say I enjoyed this piece. I also (eventually) read your piece about your dying friend … I put it off for a long time because I was afraid of how you might have written such a piece. It was very good. You covered all the difficult things with such grace, hope and (allowed ) hope. So what are you two doing in London? Ted has just spent three weeks in the UK (I’m taking some courses … same cost and … ) I had hoped, the weather here would be better … but, NO. Poor guy is getting back tonight at some godforsaken hour … flying via Toronto and plane from Heathrow is already late, so he may miss his connection to Edmonton. Enjoy England. Anita

    • Hi Anita,
      Elizabeth is spending a semester at the U of Leeds! Very exciting, although the accommodation situation is taking a little bit of ironing out. More on that later. I’ll be back home Sunday. Next time we have Miles over, maybe you guys can come, too, and we can share some stories?
      (The weather here still stinks. At least it was mild in London. When we arrived in Leeds yesterday it was raining snow, but soon enough it turned into just rain. Today’s weather highlight is freezing fog, whatever that is. Haven’t ventured out yet.)

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