I was heading back to Heathrow airport for the next leg of my world tour. This is a journey that typically involves a train ride into London and then a tube voyage out to Heathrow where the Piccadilly line is supposed to stop. More on that in a minute; first the good train story from the trip to London.
Part 1: Good train
I sat down on the train, having pre-selected a seat that would make it easy to stash my suitcase next to me. Even though the train was not full, a woman came and sat across from me (even more surprising given that she was then facing backwards, although perhaps that bothers others less than I!). She smiled, which was a bit unusual (see my favorite book on English behavior where Kate Fox talks about how people do not make eye contact or talk to each other on trains) and proceeded to make a few phone calls on her mobile. I was not terribly fussed, although she stopped at one point and looked over at me and apologized for the rudeness of her behavior in using her phone. I just laughed and said “Don’t worry, I’m American and totally unfazed by such things.” She replied, “I’m still trying not to be too annoying with the cell phone!” It was immediately clear from this exchange and her accent that she was not a native of England. Well, that explained the eye contact and the smile, this was another person who was not from around here. It turned out we had a lot more in common than just non-Englishness, and we proceeded to have the most amazing conversation the entire rest of the way to London. I gave her my card and have already had an email from her. So sometimes life has some pleasant surprises for you in the form of an unexpectedly pleasant chance meeting on a train, and the opportunity to make a new friend when you least expect it.
Part 2: Bad train
We now move on to the less pleasant part of my trip to Heathrow. I managed to get the tube across town towards Heathrow and was sitting on the increasingly-emptying Piccadilly line train as it rumbled towards Zone 6 and my final destination. Now last week when I had made this trip for the US leg of my world tour, there had been some interesting confusion concerning the Heathrow Terminal 4 station; an announcement had come over the intercom asking us to get off at Hatton Cross and wait for another train to Terminal 4 as this one would only stop at Terminals 1-2-3. We had all disembarked only to be told that that train would stop at Terminal 4 anyways and to get back on.
So it was not without some trepidation that I was waiting for instructions as we approached the end of the line on this particular trip. I will make what could be a very long story as short as possible. The tube did not stop at Hatton Cross. The tube did not stop at Heathrow Terminal 4. There were no announcements, there were no instructions, no signs, nothing posted. This was one of those clear cases where you were supposed to know ahead of time the answer and only those “in the know” or willing to beg for help from London Underground staff were ever going to find their way to their final destinations. Now I know how it works and could do it again in a pinch; there is a separate train line, a service as part of the “Heathrow Express,” that will take you free to terminal 4. The bad news is that the trains run only every 15 minutes and I just missed one (finally having located it) and it is not very efficiently designed: imagine a train full of people with luggage trying to get up to the Heathrow departures area on 4 small elevators—thus in discrete bursts instead of something continuous and more efficient like an escalator. Bottom line: if the Piccadilly line had been stopping at terminal 4, I would have been there at the airport with 3 hours before the trans-continental flight. With the transit adventures, I barely got my bags checked in 90 minutes before the flight was due to leave. That’s an hour and a half trying to get a reasonably short distance; I might have been able to walk there faster than I eventually got there with this other train system. Of course, now I know how to use the Heathrow Express, and given the fun of this adventure and the possibility for future adventures, I might well be able to use this information in the future!