Lunch in Florence -- punishment for my carbon emissions, and a glimpse of my own past
On Wednesday I went to give a paper at the European University, which is housed in stunning quarters outside Florence, in Fiesole. Getting to know about this has been one of the good consequences of working with the European Research Council -- it is a fantastic place, all graduate, which offers fully funded PhD grants and generous post-doc fellowships. (Why don't more Brits take advantage of this?)
I left Gatwick at 10.00 (on Meridiana, as will become relevant later in the story) and by 1.15 (the time change works in your favour) I was lunching with a friend and ex-student overlooking the Ponte Vecchio. Niggling doubts about the morality of this in "Copenhagen week" were quickly overlain by the sheer fun of it all, and how easily it had worked. Breakfast on the Thames, lunch by the Arno.
But don't worry, punishment was to come.
It was a wonderful day, and the post-docs and Faculty I met at Fiesole were tremendous. The next morning I showed up at Florence airport at 6.30, and we boarded the plane at about 7.45. In a fit of self confidence, I texted the husband to say that we would be taking off and arriving on time. Pride coming before a fall.
(Sorry to those of you who are fed up with Beard's travel problem stories.. but there is a different sort of twist coming in this one.)
It was actually very cold on Thursday, in Florence as well as the UK, and the plane needed de-icing. Florence airport apparently has only one de-icer and there was a queue for it, and despite early estimates of 10 to 15 minutes, we must have been some way down it. Two hours later we were still sitting there; two hours 10 minutes later we were getting off ("the flight MAY be cancelled"... that always means WILL be.)
At this point, I became a pushy customer (if you are not at the front of the queue on these occasions, you get nowhere). Luckily I had been travelling business class (the up-grade paid by me, not the University, before you rush to the keyboard on the subject of the EU gravy train), which helped a lot. I had a meeting in London at 1.00, I explained, which I needed to be at, and had paid a lot to get to! (This was almost true -- actually the "meeting" was the TLS Christmas lunch, which I hadn't been able to get to for years...and the lunatically early start from Florence had been planned around this.)
There was an Italian man too, in a bit of a panic about a meeting he had in London at 3.00. Together we stood our ground and (choosing not to think about our fellow travellers who were having to wait for the next flight out of Florence to Gatwick at six in the evening) we were put in a car to Bologna, to catch the British Airways flight at 12.15. (There were dire warnings about how we might not make it because of the neve, but the scenery was prettily white and the autostrada clear and we got there with an hour to spare.)
We bonded as you do in such circumstances. He was particularly grateful to me, as he had not been travelling Business, but I had scooped him up. I was grateful to him for being friendly and local and knowing what was likely to work.
At some point, I asked him what he did. He was an architect, he said.
It was about ten minutes before I put together a strange personal fantasy about this whole encounter. Years ago I wrote a review for the LRB, which included the story of an unwilling sexual encounter I had had in 1978, in a Wagon Lit between Milan and Rome. (The short, Guardian version is here; the original LRB version, for subscribers, is here). The man in question had been an architect on his way to a biscuit factory he was designing near Naples, and he had upgraded me to a first class Wagon Lit -- for obvious reasons and purposes.
Now let me underline that my new friend of yesterday was certainly NOT the same man. But as we sped to Bologna, I could not help but re-write the story as if in a novel -- where, of course, me and architect number one would have been bound to meet in this random way 30 years later, but this time me "helping him out" with his travel arrangements...and in the course of the journey to Bologna we would each have discovered the coincidence but not have voiced our realisations. And the satisfaction would have been all mine . . . you can write the rest.
Anyway, the real story ended with me getting to lunch by 3.15 (it was still going on) and I hope that architect number two (who was NOT identical in real life with architect number one, let me repeat) made his meeting. I guess I shall never know.