Sunday, January 18, 2009
The time is approximately 10:10 locally on Monday, January 13, and I’m waiting to find out which terminal my plane to Florence departs from.
In retrospect, I thought the service at JFK was really smooth. Of course I wasn’t there at peak morning hours, but I was impressed with how well the “air train” shuttle system worked and how efficient and inviting the airport was as a whole. I don’t think I’ve seen an airport where you could walk that close to the gates before going through security, which seems even more surprising given that it was the international terminal. If only PHL were so spacious...
Upon takeoff, I was a bit disappointed that I was on the left side of the airplane, denying me the aerial view of Manhattan. I was quickly assuaged when I realized that we would fly almost exactly parallel to Long Island, and that was viewed by my side of the aircraft, a jumbo jet with a seating arrangement of two people on each side and four in the middle. It was such a cool sight, first coming out of the little bay where JFK is situated and then along the island. Although I’m sure it’s a great view by day, at night the whole island was lit up in various grid patterns based on the housing developments, each of them becoming more and more sparse the further we progressed. The barrier islands were particularly interesting as they were completely illuminated closer into the city, giving a detailed outline of the island, while the various straits and sounds weaved through them. The further along though, the barrier islands were much more sparsely lit, not for lack of people willing to live there, but due to the parks that line the ocean. In these parks, a single road would wander out into the black night, protruding from the great dark surrounding them.
As we ascended, it became clear where Long Island ended and Connecticut began on the other side of the Long Island Sound. The crosshatched grids of Long Island gave way to a long dark length, with lights creeping up on the other side. Unlike the island, Connecticut was only lit along the coast, fading into darkness in the forests and mountains beyond. I watched the lights until almost the very end of our flight parallel to Long Island, giving way to the two peninsulas at the eastern tip of the island, although, by this point, the island was relatively sparse in its’ lighting, only revealing enough to make out the general shape of these points.
I was pleasantly surprised by the complimentary service of food and entertainment on the plane, which is rarely seen on American airlines today. I had a tasty pasta dish while watching Woody Allen’s new Vicky Cristina Barcelona, yet another of the disappointing films this year that have come so close to being great, but have stopped just short.
After the movie I checked the window again over the ocean, and it was quite a sight. It looked like the “A Whole New World” magic carpet ride sequence from Aladdin, stars as bright as ever, and a thick bed of clouds some thousand miles beneath us. It was quite magical. The flight attendants had asked us to close the windows earlier in the flight, so I did not leave it open long, but every once in a while I peeked back in on the stars. I soon fell asleep for two or three hours listening to the music and sweet voices of Joni Mitchell and June Christy.
I awoke when the flight attendants turned on the light some time after 2:30 EST, and they began to serve breakfast: a decent croissant, yogurt, and orange juice (in one of those containers that is the same as the yogurt: who ever thought of that, and why do they still use them?) When I checked back in on the monitor, I found the next movie, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, was well under way, so I opted for Pink Floyd’s Meddle and a view of the clouds over the English Channel as we passed over the beaches of Normandy and the Channel Islands. I closed the window again though as there was little see but clouds.
When I reopened my window some thirty minutes later we were in the foothills of the Alps. It looked a lot like West Virginia actually: farms carved into the hillside and deciduous forest taking up any unused land. Snow covered the settlements on the hills, while the valleys one or two thousand feet below remained clear. The big difference was in the development of the towns, which are everywhere. I didn’t see any metropolitan centers, but rather town after town (or development,) all small, and each only hundreds of feet from the next. These little centers of houses were built up everywhere, not covering the land as our suburbs do, but dense in small portions, while farms took up any semi-flat land in between. The settlements themselves were also European in their use of winding streets as opposed to thought-out grids. Each settlement did not appear planned but had simply sprouted out of the farmland centuries before.
We made one turn of the plane that revealed much taller mountains (Rockies compared to the Appalachians I’d been seeing.) It must have been the real Alps, but that was all I got to see of them, as the plane turned back around and we circled for a landing. We descended into a thick cover of clouds that lasted all the way down to the runway. Here, snow covered the ground all around. It looked to be only an inch, but an inch that is a permanent fixture in winter, not melting away quickly as it does near us. We got in at 3:50 EST, 9:50 locally, an hour ahead of schedule, giving me a chance to write more while waiting for my next flight to Florence.