When American Airlines adjusted their spring travel schedule and knocked service to Greece back by a month, it caused our flight plan to change for the better in one way. We were put on AA’s evening LAX-London nonstop on the 777-300, and as an added bonus, spent our pre-departure time in the Quantas OneWorld lounge because our plane was docked at the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) instead of in T4. I had only previously experienced TBIT during their pre-opening public preview so seeing it through the eyes of passenger was quite a treat. It was also exciting to set foot inside the swanky lounge there in person as opposed to the less-impressive Admiral’s Club in T4.
The OneWorld lounge features plenty of modern seating in a wide-open yet still cozy layout and a generous assortment of food (which I eagerly sampled since I basically came to the airport from work and was rather peckish). After grabbing a Manhattan from the massive bar near the entrance, Chris and I settled into some seats that overlooked the incoming passenger halls. Even though the view sounds somewhat mundane, it actually isn’t because the passageway features a very cool art installation over it made up of of thousands of multicolored strings.
All-too quickly it was time to board our plane, so we found our way to the gate and settled into our cozy business class cabin for the 10-hour trip. The forward-cabin crew was fantastic and attentive throughout the flight and we both indulged in a glass of pre-departure champagne to kick off our two week-long European adventure.
As nice as the seats were, I failed to get much more than an hour or two of proper sleep because try as I might, I just can’t sleep when I’m excited about going on a journey to new places aboard a swanky jet. It didn’t help that my broad shoulders made lying flat on my back next to impossible. Chris slept like a baby. I watched movies and read my book, occasionally dozing when I could. The flight crew was sympathetic to my plight and made sure to regularly check on me and the other few passengers who weren’t getting much shut-eye, offering a sensible combo of water alongside any desired cocktails.
And then suddenly we were on the ground in London at 2:00 p.m. the following day. Customs was nearly empty so we zoomed through immigration and went outside for a spot of fresh air. We had considered heading to nearby Windsor Castle during our long 7-hour layover, but the London weather as cold and rainy and we didn’t have proper coats or an umbrella with us. So after about half an hour of fresh air, we went back inside and retreated to the BA Galleries lounge in Terminal 5.
Terminal 5 was a far cry from the Heathrow airport I remembered from our last trip here in 2004. Gone was the dingy, low-ceilinged cattle pen and in its place was another of the many steel and glass temples of transport that have come to define modern international air terminals. Both Chris and I remarked that the ticketing hall bore an uncanny resemblance to the one at Kansai airport in Japan. And post-security, the architects had done a good job of making sure you had to navigate through the now ubiquitous upscale shopping mall experience of international departures before being able to reach your gate, the lounge, or even a bathroom.
Once we reached the BA lounge, we grabbed a window set overlooking the crowds below and we both tried to relax. Truthfully all I really wanted was a shower, but only the arrivals lounges offered this feature and they were closed by the time we had landed. So instead, I began mixing myself rusty nails at the self-service bar, which featured two different kinds of Drambuie liquor (one of which I had never seen before). We sipped, we snacked, and I even made the mistake of trying to go back outside for a cigarette about halfway through our layover. It turned out that this involved going through customs and immigration AGAIN in order to get outside, even though I had done so already just a few hours prior. It turns out Heathrow T5 is designed to help people quit smoking.
When 9 p.m. finally rolled around we boarded our connecting flight to Athens on British Airways. Like most European carriers, first class on this flight wasn’t any nicer of a seat than in economy. The only difference was you had the middle seat blocked and you were served a nicer meal. Since the flight was only three and a half hours, I didn’t mind this one bit. I was a bit surprised that they served a full dinner on what was, ostensibly, a red-eye that landed at 3:30 a.m. My body didn’t complain though, since I was readily eating anything handed to me due to my prolonged lack of sleep. Our flight crew was a bit dowdy and utterly charming, so again I didn’t get a wink of shut-eye on this leg and instead chatted with the purser. I may have drunk some more whiskey and also a lovely cup of tea.
At this point, I was on Monkey Time, which RuPaul Charles defined in his 1995 book Lettin It All Hang Out as being so exhausted from lack of sleep and travel that you don’t really know what timezone you’re in, let alone what your first name is. I’m paraphrasing because my copy of the book is missing and Google Books won’t show me the full page where he explains it. But at any rate, we landed in Athens and basically just walked out the front door with only a cursory once-over from the Immigration officer working the graveyard shift. We reached our hotel, the Intercontinental Athens, at 5:00 a.m. and fell into bed as soon as we were in the door of our room. At long last, I slept… for about six hours. My body apparently thought this was enough time for a recharge, and in fairness that’s about how much sleep I get on a normal day. So perhaps it just didn’t want us to waste our brief time in Athens on recuperative sleep when there was a city to explore. Who was I to argue?
After spending fifteen minutes with what felt at the time was the World’s Most Incredible Shower, we made a quick stop in the hotel lounge for some light snacks to fuel us up and met a friendly couple from Omaha who were taking a break from their morning of sightseeing to figure out the rest of their day. Without much prodding at all, Jan and Bob gave us their rundown on the things we should see before we headed off to Crete. Top on their list was the Acropolis museum, which they had just come from and said was a cheaper and far more interesting way to experience the Acropolis than by going up to the ruins themselves. We hinted that we wanted to check out the city life a bit first and they saved us the trouble of using Google Maps by pointing us to the closest tram stop that would take us there.
Determined to spend more than an hour outside even though jet lag was still kicking us between the eyes, we rode the tram to Syntagma in the city’s center. Our first stop was the national botanical gardens, which in addition to having a bit of a Central Park feel, also was apparently a popular cruising spot for the locals. We noticed several guys checking out the “wildlife” in the park both on foot and on bicycles. It was more like Central Park than we realized, apparently. While it was definitely springtime, there weren’t a whole lot of flowers blooming in the gardens so we eventually made our way out and over to Syntagma Square where Athens was celebrating Bike Weekend!
Excited, I ran into the thick of it only to discover it was mostly bicycle stores and energy drink manufacturers that had set up shop, so we headed East along the Ermou pedestrian shopping district and discovered our very first Tiger store. If you’ve never been inside one, Tiger is like a smaller, weirder version of IKEA with lots and lots of cheap stuff. It’s like Cost Plus World Market, only way cooler because it’s Danish and terribly cute. I mean, what’s not to love about a company that runs a #FindTheBanana contest in its stores? We spent a good half hour wandering around and walked out with really only one purchase, a set of LED “glow fingers” for one of our friends back home. This was mainly because at this point, it was our first shopping excursion and we had two small suitcases which we were quite nervouss about filling up too quickly. We like to pack light.
It wasn’t proper dinner time for the Greeks yet, who tend to eat a little later than we’re accustomed to, but we were getting hungry and had stumbled into a cafe-lined courtyard around the corner from the Church of the Panaghia Kapnikarea. Most folks were enjoying a beer in the tree-filled center of Dimopratiriou square. We settled into a table outside a taverna in the Southwest corner of the square and watched as musicians slowly began to appear on patios, lights twinkled on, and delicious food landed in front of our eyes.
Exhaustion melted into a state of joy as we dove eagerly into our dinner of Greek salad and a bunch of other things I’ve already forgotten. After they brought us dessert, we wandered South through narrow streets towards the lights of the Acropolis. We walked past a strikingly somber outdoor church service (complete with singers costumed entirely in black) in progress and inadvertently stumbled upon a cafe my father in-law had recommended we visit for late-night drinks.
Though it was definitely getting dark by this time, we were far more interested in winding our way past the odd collections of trinket shops and fancy bars (including one that had its own onsite distillery) than in sitting down again. Tiring as walking was beginning to feel, I wanted to keep moving around this lively area (at least until we came upon a tram stop that would get us back to our hotel).
We eventually did get back to our hotel, and went to the lounge again for one last tipple before bed. We ended up staying awake well past midnight though, after running into the couple from Omaha again and a family from Cork who invited us to join their conversation out on the rooftop. By the end of the night we were all friends. After the lounge closed we all moved to the suite that the Irish family was staying in to continue talking. I brought out some minis of whiskey the BA flight crew had passed me shortly before landing and we talked until I could barely keep my eyes open.
Meeting interesting people, even if it only was at our hotel, was a really comforting start to our trip. No, they weren’t some ancient temple or culinary tour of the city, but they were just as valuable an experience to add to our itinerary and I was grateful that they ended up on it. Now if I could just get a good night’s sleep…