Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On Travel and Truth Telling


Soon (PLEASE, God!), I'll be heading to my writing hideaway in Minnesota. Rewrites for Stray Affections (coming in September), the first novel in my Snowglobe Connections series, are calling--and due in January. As a professional writer (stand back: professional words at work!), I've learned that deadlines equal incentive, as in no deadline, no incentive, no writing, no get paid.


I'll be driving to Minnesota, and that's just the way I like it. My estimated departure? When I get my work-load under control (HA!), Christmas packages and cards sent, the car packed, Kornflake (my big red dog) in the back seat, all my files and resources loaded (plus all my electronic gadgets), and the weather looks road worthy. However, considering that I thought I'd already be in MN a week and a half ago, thus the topic of today's message: the airlines.


Well, sort of, but not really. Ultimately, you will be the judge of that. It's just that the airline industry is often such an easy, ripe and deserving target on which to blame things, rather than taking the blame ourselves--even when they have nothing to do with our failures. But since I'm trying to hold myself accountable here (perhaps even ring your blame-game bells), let's have at it.


Air travel is a strange beast, but then, so am I. If I were forced to post a personal schedule in a terminal on a display board, I can only imagine how much fun the travelers, the travel industry, the press, and bloggers such as myself, would have slamming my "delayed," "canceled" and "just plain dumb" notices.


Seriously, I just creeped myself out considering how embarrassing it would be to get busted--in public--for my own scheduling and business screw-ups. (How can we not think about this, here in Illinois, the day after our governor creates such humiliating national headlines? Then again, innocent until PROVEN guilty, right? Then again, it is Illinois, so ….) I couldn't live long enough to list the number of times I've said, "I'll be on the road by 7:30 a.m.," only to finally back out of the driveway at 2 p.m.. Sometimes I'm backing out again at 2:15 because a short way down the road, I realize I've forgotten something critical to my trip.


I've been on airplanes that pushed away, then, for one reason or another, returned to the gate. Once, in an unhappy and monotone voice, the captain informed us that a crew member –and he named her!--had forgotten her suitcase which contained security tags she’d need for her next trip. When she came schlepping back onto the plane, bag in tow, her poor face was so red. I wanted to unbelt myself and hug her, then thank her for making me feel so human. I also wanted to smack the snot out of the mean pilot, but alas, that type of behavior doesn't go over well these days. I value my breath.


[NOSTALIC INTERRUPTION: Remember the good old days when they'd occasionally return to the gate for a passenger? I get all mushy just thinking about it.]


But since I'm holding myself accountable, when it comes to mess-ups, delays, and doofus behaviors, I'm guessing my over-all track record just about matches the abysmal stats for the airlines, and maybe even tops it. It's terrorizing to imagine how few people would read what I have to say if they knew the sum total of my foibles.


Then again, that's why I call myself a humorist, because every dumb thing I do is fodder for the stage or page. Sometimes people ask me where I come up with such hysterical stories. "I just wake up and follow me around," I say. And it's the truth. I have a nonfiction book releasing in June that will likely cause you to laugh until you cry: Don't Miss Your Life!: An Uncommon Guide to Living With Freedom, Laughter and Grace. (Go here to sign up for release particulars.) When we suffer from a dumbness crisis, what's our choice, other than to ground ourselves indefinitely, and live tortured, guilty lives? NO WAY!


For instance, just last week, I fell out of a car. Seriously. And now I’m going to WRITE ABOUT IT! Thank goodness the car wasn't moving. But the dumbest part? It's the third time it's happened to me this year. Here's how it goes:


I'm in the passenger seat. George pulls up to drop me off (like the airlines, I'm often running late--too late to be "on time" if I have to find a parking space), I go to hop out of the car, and instead, I crash land on the cement because my foot is tangled in one of the long straps on my handbag. THREE TIMES AND THE EXACT SAME SCENARIO! This last time, I hobbled for days. The skin was scrapped off both my knees (through my jeans!), and my right knee, which took the bulk of the impact, is still three shades of green.


Seriously, folks, I would NOT want to see my personal snafus posted on a flight board as "Delayed again due to ongoing stupidity." Although to be honest, somehow seeing the AIRLINES post that type of missive on a flight board would arrive as a welcome relief. They seem to often make reasons up as to why they're in trouble, which gets us (at least me) twice as mad. At least I tell the truth, no matter how sorry or doofus-laden it is.


All this to say, I'm driving to Minnesota as soon as I get my business ducks and Christmas stuff in a row. My original departure time was more than a week ago. I'm still not caught up. I'll try not to fall down. I hope the weather doesn't interfere. I'll talk to you from Minnesota next week. Hopefully.


As for the airlines? They’re on their own to keep us informed.


But How would you feel if you saw “Delayed again due to ongoing bad management” posted on a flight board. Seriously? How would you feel? Comment below.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Get Your Funky Sleep On!


Sometimes, just reading itinerary details for an upcoming trip makes a traveler weary. Look at all those flights and meetings. Imagine how many drop-kicks, punts, Hail-Marys, taxi blitzes, play-book plans, or long runs I'll need to undertake in order to procure ground transportation between all those meetings. (Hey, it's football season.) So many keys and room numbers, business receipts for meals and bottled water (where should I keep them this time so that I don't lose money on my expense account?), laundry issues, stomach upset, time changes. I sure hope I can sleep. I packed my own alarm clock, right? I have my passport, right? I double-checked to make sure my flights are still flying, right?

DON'T FORGET TO PACK THIS ITINERARY!


But sometimes, that jam-packed itinerary contains one gem of an item or activity that looks to be so enticing that you can hardly wait to get to it. Such was the case for my recent Amsterdam trip. The gem: the citizenM. (Poet and know it.)

When the citizenM Amsterdam originally appeared on my itinerary (which I did not arrange), my first thought was, Hm. What's this? So I checked out the website. Then I checked it out about ten more times. Next, I forwarded the link to my family and friends, explaining how I couldn't wait to see this funky citizenM in person. Then I started bugging said family and friends, asking them if they'd looked at the site yet.

"Did your run your mouse over 'the room' set-up?" (THEY JUMP ON THE BED!)
"Did you watch the movie?"
"Isn't that FUN?"
"Mood lights!"

Collective pre-trip speculations, not all with which I agreed:

Teensy tiny rooms (could be bad)
Strange (maybe too strange)
Kitschy
Fun
Cutting edge
Funky
"Saw this concept on a documentary."
Loud (maybe)
Lacking (possible)
Not for old people (which I am)
Interesting
Maybe not conducive for business (we'll see)
Not handy to downtown Amsterdam

Whatever. I'm still excited.

After arriving at Schiphol, a worthy stop of it's own (read about my Security Blues), the citizenM, ("citizen mobile") was the first stop on the itinerary, and it couldn't have been closer or more convenient. We walked out the airport door, strolled for a couple mostly-canopied minutes, and there we were. Yes, the citizenM is located right on the airport grounds.

When our band of merry fellow travelers arrived for our check-in, we were greeted by Michael Levie, CEO of citizenM hotels. Although he had a previous commitment scheduled, he'd gone out of his way to stay long enough to extend us a handshake and warm welcome. We were then turned over to the young and perky desk folks. I snagged a moment to look around: Nice! Unusual. Interesting. Kitschy. Fun! Even the furniture was unusual --and Oh, that's what they mean by canteenM! After all, it says on their website that the "citizenM is named after a new type of traveller; the mobile 'citizen' of this world. Mobile citizens are frequent – but wise – travellers, globally aware, value conscious, not afraid of technology, contemporary, informed and have a social, free spirited personality."

THAT IS SO ME! I thought as I fluttered with delight at my first impressions.

(Before I get into more details, let me make it clear that this was not a comped stay. We each paid for our own room: 69 Euros, which is a price available to anyone, dependent upon their fill rate. So, since I paid, I have no "extra incentive" to herewith pad my opinions toward the positive, and yet, mostly positive they shall be. I LOVED the place!)

By the time we were done receiving live-person help to walk us through the computer check-in process (simple, really, but after you've been flying all night, even brushing your teeth--all your teeth--can sometimes feel challenging), we had a key in our hands that doubled as a reusable bag tag, which I immediately attached to my purse strap so as not to lose it. (I'm famous for losing my room keys, and just about any and everything else.) What I was also thinking was, "How clever they are at PR: a room key that doubles as a walking advertisement."

We only had a few moments to get to our rooms and freshen up before our official tour, hosted by Robin Chadra, CMO. So off to our rooms we ventured, oogling all the way (well, me anyway). I have to say that I was actually excited to see what I'd obsessed about on their website. So, with "reality check" in the back of my brain, and yet a certain buzzed expectancy, (been there?) I opened the door and ... NICE! Exactly how it looked on the web! (A miracle, if you know what I mean.) Small, but efficient. Bright. Kitschy. Fun. Oh, that's how the shower works! Then I kicked off my shoes and hurled myself onto the giant bed, which lent no hint as to top or bottom. The many glorious pillows and wonderfully fluffy and cuddly covers were arranged in the middle of the bed, waiting for Goldilocks to arrange and rearranging them until they were just right. And so this salt-and-pepper haired "Goldi" did.

The bed was surrounded on 3 sides by walls and/or a giant window. One of the walls held the large flat-screen TV (Philips is a special partner), which could be viewed from of course the bed, the shower, the teensy table and chair (more later) .... I found the much touted moodpad I'd read about (scroll down on this page) and played with it until it was time for our hotel tour. (I just want to read the faqs, Charlene.) I couldn't wait to get back to the room; after all, I hadn't yet tried all the moods.

Chadra was lavish with his time and answered all questions/critiques with style, grace and honesty. Joe Brancatelli, my travel guru--and eons above and beyond a well-seasoned traveler--zeroed right in on the inefficient size of the table/desk in the rooms. Like I said, it was round and small (you can see it in my first picture), therefore it didn't allow sufficient room for him to efficiently set up his laptop and papers. Since the entire hotel offers FREE WI-FI, he could have crawled up in the bed to work, but not everyone likes to do so, including me. My little Sony is so tiny that the allotted space was fine for me, but I understood his complaint. His (or anyone's) alternative: use one of the giant-screened complimentary computers in the computer area of the lobby. Of course if one likes to work in one's underwear .... In response to Joe's "desk" critique, which spoke for most serious business travelers (or travellers, as they say over there), Chadra assured Brancatelli that they were already working on a few things, and that was one of them.

While they hashed through citizenM's vision for the future, I kept thinking, I can't wait to get back to my room and that Control Central thingie. Honestly, it does everything from change the mood (lighting colors) to changing the channels, to setting the alarm (built into the TV), to raising and lowering the light block-out shade and sheers, to controlling the temperature and .... FUN! FUN! FUN! (Call me easily entertained. It's true.)

The citizenM in Amsterdam occupies a small footprint for such a large amount of rooms, as will the rest of their builds. Part of the reason is that there is no laundry service on site, no kitchen, or other typical "service" space-needy stuff. (Food service and laundry are done off site and delivered.) Their constructions details are very interesting. And yet, you still get everything you need. Surprisingly, the food in the canteenM was actually terrific. Want a cold sandwich? Get it out of the canteenM area, charge it to your room, take it there or belly up to one of their tables or bar areas to eat it. Want a hot dish? Do the same, but use the microwave first. There is only ONE BUTTON to push; they've figured everything out. They also serve beverages, make special coffees, and do it all with a youthful energy and friendliness I found inspiring and refreshing.

BY WAY OF RECAP, REASON and FAIRNESS:

Was it a place just for young people? Absolutely not! Throughout their bright rooms, the canteenM, computer area and living rooms, there was a chair to suit every back, and a place to appease every traveler's mood and need, whether it be business or socializing. If you're traveling alone, this is a place you don't feel out of place. Everyone in my travel-savvy group agreed that the bed was wonderful.

Would you want to stay there a week or longer? Hm. Not sure. If you're sightseeing in Amsterdam, you'd have a substantial public transportation trip to deal with every day--although it's readily available right there at the airport.

Is there plenty of room in your room? Depends. They've designed great use of a small space for the necessities. For instance, the full-length mirror is on a swivel, and the back side of that swivel mirror (notice in my first picture, to the left of the sink) reveals plenty of shelves for your toiletries, their hair dryer etc.. It's close enough to the sink to be truly useful. (This lack of shelf space in most B&Bs makes me nuts.) However, if you need to hang up a bunch of clothes, there is no closet, just a short rod right inside the door with a couple/few hangers--clothes facing forward. If you like to sit in a lounge chair in your room, too bad. But, you can prop up those cushy pillows and stretch out, and you can stuff extra clothes in the ample drawer under the bed, if that works for you.

Remember, citizenM stands for "citizen mobile," and their assumption is that you're not staying there so you can hang around in your room all day.

WARNING: If you shower (make that after you shower, okay?), either close the shower doors and use the smaller walk-way created by doing so, or dry the shower floor. If you leave the doors open and the shower floor damp, your "inclination" will be to use that shower floor space as part of your walk-way. Don't. You can easily go a-skidding in your shoes. Guess how I learned? (An "aside" mixed-message warning: the shower is utterly glorious, but note that once you lather up your face, there is no place to PUT your face that is out of the shower spray, say in case you want to find the shampoo again. In other words, the shower spray comes from the top of the shower, and is exactly that big, which makes it both wonderful and inescapable.) However, their citizenM Soap smells so good that you will not mind the extra work. It comes in it's own plastic travel case. (Of course you take this with!) On the top of the case it says, "Designed to turn even the longest-haul traveller into a sparklingly clean and nice-smelling human being again." This kind of fun and light-handed--yet utterly serviceable--touch runs throughout.

EXTRA WARNING: Use the privacy door when you sit on the toilet. If anyone opens your door, HELLO PEOPLE IN THE HALLWAY!

Now it's your turn. Spend some time on their website. I think you'll enjoy the cleverness. I promise I won't treat you like my friends and family, bugging you with questions like, Did you move your mouse over the room set-up, or watch the video yet. Just DO IT! Okay?

Although I love the Hampton Inns here in the United States (although I've noticed they're getting more spendy than some Hiltons, have you?), if they start building citizenMs anywhere near my destinations (although that looks to be a while), for me, it will be a no-brainer. Just color me a certified citizenM groupie, for alas, I SO AM!

Monday, November 17, 2008

On Wheels and Walking in Amsterdam

Amsterdam. What a great place. Seriously, I loved it! (More in upcoming posts.) But beware: if you’re not careful, walking in Amsterdam can be hazardous to your life.


Sure, jaywalking and reckless drivers can cause a smack-down anywhere, but in Amsterdam, it’s walking where you think you’re supposed to walk that can kill you. Not counting water taxis on the canals, there seems to be a different traveling pecking order in Amsterdam, and from my point of view, it goes like this:


  1. Bicyclists (absolutely first – jingle-jingle)
  2. Trams (ding-ding)
  3. City buses (hear the engine)
  4. Cars (an occasional honk)
  5. Motorcycles and scooters (vroom-vroom)
  6. Pedestrians (“Yikes!”)


The first in my series of near smack-downs arrived as I was walking between the Hotel Okura (more in an upcoming post) and a salon. (Notice there is only one o in that word.) I was in a hurry because I'd just been struck with one of my I-need-a-haircut-right-now attacks.


With desperation in my eyes, I asked the concierge at the Hotel Okura, “Is there a nearby beauty salon where I might get a quick haircut?” He nodded, flipped through his giant stack of business cards, pulled out the one he was looking for, then gave his choice a quick call and query. “Yes, she can be there in five minutes,” I heard him say before he hung up. Then he jotted down an address and handed it to me.


“Go out the front door, turn left till you reach the street, turn right, cross the canal, and in about a block, it will be right there on your right.” (Man, I wish I had a personal concierge on my staff. Better yet, I wish I had a staff.) "It'll only take you a minute," he added. Nice. Four leisurely minutes to spare.


Who would think that in two short blocks, I could nearly do myself in, all for the sake of vanity? (I heard that!)


I set off like the Chicago Suburbanite I am, mindlessly sauntering into that right-hand turn. Oh, I love the canals! Oh, the architecture is so awesome here, and so European. And oh


SAUNTER INTERRUPTUS!


Elbows of two bicyclists all but skimmed off my ears when they whizzed around me, then I heard the sounds of skidding bicycle tires behind me. I jumped to the left—only to hear a bicycle's jingle-jingle, which I quickly learned is a polite yet unmistakable Dutch version of GET OUT OF THE WAY RIGHT NOW, TOURIST! So, I lurched to the right and … JINGLE-JINGLE! Finally I realized that what appeared to be a sidewalk was instead a dedicated bicycle lane.


Now, this does not mean that bicyclists stay in the multitudes of designated bicycle lanes that look like sidewalks. They also ride the actual pedestrian sidewalks, the streets, and slingshot in front of the buses and trams, all while talking on their cell phones, carrying passengers (sometimes a couple/few children at a time), briefcases and groceries. Truly, it's amazing! For them, it is as natural as, say, walking on something that looks like a sidewalk.


Let me share a perspective-slamming stat from the Amsterdam Tourist Office: “Nearly half of all traffic movements in Amsterdam are by bike.” I would add that while I was there, one-third of all the remaining traffic “movements” was me leaping out of the way of the bikes, the trams, other motorized vehicles, and, in case I didn't make myself clear, more bicycles.


In truth, Amsterdam has a marvelous public transportation system, and their bicycle prowess is utterly inspiring. But for this foreigner, it was a harrowing task to figure out the natural Dutch order and speedy flow of things.


For instance, while dodging bicycles, cars and motor scooters to get to where I thought I was supposed to be standing (feel the wind-up) to catch a tram, I nearly got pegged by another tram. Eventually I learned I was supposed to be standing on this teensy “island” (honestly, it was barely as wide as me) that was hardly obvious, yet was located smack in the middle of all those “movements.”


As you can see by my pictures, there is a chorus of “movements” in Amsterdam, which to the untrained eye --and especially the slow moving body--might at first (and second and third) seem a bit chaotic. If you can just sit and watch it from high above, it is mesmerizing. However, when you're down in it, well . . . .


This is of course why I decided to catch a ride with a horse. Because I could. Surely an entire gigantic horse wouldn't get pegged off as quickly as the pitiful me. And honestly, a HORSE?! There are also HORSES clomping through all this “movement?”


The Amsterdam Tourist Office touts that there are “no less than” 600,000 bicycles for 730,000 people who live in Amsterdam. That is some statistic. It is also my observation that everyone is in good shape. While taking a night-time canal ride (wonderful!), our host explained that native residents get their first bicycle when they turn three. She said it comes with a tall orange flag to let everyone know there is a beginner nearby. She also said, “We are very good on our bicycles.”


To which I would add, unbelievably good. The fact that I am alive to write about it is living proof. And the next time I visit Amsterdam, I'm taping an orange flag to my body.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Security Blues

For my recent week-long trip to Amsterdam, with a night in NYC tacked on to each end, I determined that I would not check a bag. Sure, I had a couple "fancy clothes" business meetings, and I needed to take my jeans in order to exist in the manner to which I am accustomed. And a girl needs at least one extra pair of shoes to coordinate outfits, and her creams and potions, deodorant and charging cords, a laptop and camera, her data base and a few lip glosses, an inch-thick folder with business and tourist information, and okay, a couple clothing options. . . . But I am living proof that one CAN travel for nine days with 2 carry-on bags filled to the brim, and still clear security without a hassle.

At least on the way out of the country. (Feel the wind-up?)

In Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, you don't pass through a full-blown security check-point until you enter your gate area. (Yes, they are set up with security measures at each gate!) All it takes to cruise the concourse is a boarding pass and your passport. Piece of cake. The whole facility is so filled with opportunities for pleasure and entertainment that it's easy to forget you still have Security Work to do before boarding. After all, here in the United States, we're used to having that behind us by the time we go browsing, or speed-racing--whichever suits the day's agenda.

Imagine the freedom to shop (bought me some excellent Dutch licorice), get a massage (20 minutes' worth, I did), browse a museum (which I didn't, but I could have), eat (bought a sandwich to take on the plane, which I never ate because OpenSkies served me two great meals) without first having to prove you're a safe, secure and compliant 3-1-1, liquid-and-gel-toting person!

Eventually, I dragged my way to my gate, which meant I'd finally arrived at the Gotcha! point of my long journey. No, they didn't "get me" with the questions, which were rigorous; thankfully I had the right answers. But the next step was like a double-gottcha since your bags pass through the X-ray machine about the same time as you do; like in the states, these elements are side by side. However, at Schiphol, the next folks don't pass through until both you and your stuff have cleared security.

But no problem-o, right? I had nothing to hide. I removed my jacket and put it in a bin. When I started to remove my shoes, I was told there was no need. "Try getting through with them on. If you buzz, then you can take them off." (WOW! Now there's a concept!) Shoes on, I removed my computer from my smaller bag and put it in a bin. With a great grunt and heft, I got both my bags up on the conveyor belt. Then, through the machine they signaled me to walk, and through the scanner my bags traveled.

BZZZZZZZ!

"Remove your shoes, please." I passed through again without them.

BZZZZZZZ!

And guess what else? The X-Ray readers were hot on the trail of a suspect something in my bag!

I shall herewith promise to never again complain about getting wanded at O'Hare, my home airport. At Schiphol, they used a wand, sure. But after I set off the wand, too, the female security person checked me out. Thoroughly. And that's all I'm going to say about that.

While she was checking me, the X-Ray man was communicating with another security person who now had my green bag in front of him, unzipped--stuff exploding out of it every which way. X-Ray man was pointing at his machine and verbally trying to describe exactly where in the bag the suspicious item resided, which was down in the bottom near a wheel.

Released from the pat-down person, I donned my shoes and jacket and stepped up to my suitcase, which I'd been requested to do. The Very Serious gentleman was attempting to slither his meaty hand down into the bottom side of my suitcase to locate whatever they were excited about, but his hand would not fit. My dirty socks, laid across the top like noodles since, what with the purchase of a few souvenirs, prohibited me from fitting them in any other way, were crawling out of the bag this way and that. I could not imagine what they were after--unless it was the USB mouse I use for my laptop. I remembered tucking it in that bag at the last minute. I asked if that could be it.

"No. We see that."

The X-Ray guy kept pointing at something on the machine, while the rest of the folks backed up behind me. Finally, I leaned around to look at the machine's X-ray to see if I could figure out what on earth they were searching for.

"Oh! That's my harmonica!"

Without smiling, the man at my suitcase asked me if I played. I explained that I was teaching myself, and mumbled something like, "You can file that where you will." Bag-search man did not look convinced or humored. About anything.

"You won't feel the harmonica with your bare hand," I finally said, noting his digging was fruitless. "It's wrapped up inside a hat."

He withdrew his hand, then stared at my bag and the predicament for a moment. "I'm not supposed to let you do this," he finally said, "but in this case, I think it would be best if you retrieve it, since you know exactly where to find what we're looking for."

After a quick prayer, I jimmied my hand down inside my suitcase, hoping to recognize the feel of my hat on the first try. Otherwise, I'd have to disassemble my whole bag. Not pretty.

AHA! Got it! I came up with the hat, unfolded it and presented my harmonica, which is one step up from a dollar store version. He took a quick look at it, then handed it back to me.

"QUIET, EVERYONE! QUIET!" he yelled throughout the entire gate area. (I am not exaggerating!) Then he stared at me. "Play."

Oh, Lordy.

In a panic, without first looking at it, I put the harmonica to my mouth. I didn't notice that I had the high "keys" to my left, which was all wrong, so when I attempted to play "You are my sunshine," it came out a chaotic, non-melodious, dog-toy squeaky mess instead of the bluesy rendition I've been working on. But apparently, it was good enough for security. Both men broke out in laughter and told me I could move on.

All that was left for me to do was to pick up my ego, repack my bag, and body slam it back into submission -- and tuck my harmonica away, where it belongs.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Open thinking = OpenSkies



THE PREAMBLE

Before I get into specifics about my OpenSkies’ inaugural travel experience from JFK to AMS, let me preface with the following framework for my review: I am a notorious coach class flyer.


There. I’ve said it. But stay with me, business class travelers, for at the very least, I should help you truly appreciate that to which you've become accustomed.


Since I opened the door to my coach-class status, for the record, let me also say that while I always request an aisle seat, and book early enough to get one, I prefer the dreaded middle seat to the window. (From what I hear, business fare travelers would rather hitch hike to their destination than get stuck in the middle.) To me, window seats feel The Most crowded since the fuselage folds around under my feet, and the space on the floor under the seat in front of me is less than with the middle. Not good. I always have “stuff” I want to handily stuff there. Also, since everyone feels so sorry for me in the middle, I usually get both arm rests. I realize this might sound like no compensation for you serious (as in there is no other way for you to look at it) business travelers, but it is my truth.


Due to budget constraints (both personal, as well as for those who pay my travel expenses to come speak—and by the way, I’m fascinating!), I’m careful with travel dollars. I watch and wait for the best coach fares. But even I have my limits: in order to survive, I pay close attention (and extra dollars) to and for nonstop and sensible flight times. In other words, I will not get “the cheapest flight” if it makes even one extra stop, or if I have to be on it at 6 AM., which means a middle-of-the-night wake-up call in order to save money, but which also leaves no coherency with which to speak. Although I cannot be sure, I herewith surmise that I’m less “fascinating” when I am incoherent.


I’ve never flown business class. To the best of my recollection, I’ve flown first class less than a half-dozen times, including twice for vacation purposes. Once I used my AA miles to get us (my husband and me) to Alaska; the other time we were bumped due to an over sell. Other than one intentional first-class booking by a publishing house, the rest of my handful of first-class experiences also arrived via the fate of the bump. I was just in the right place at the right time to be the right one to get to fly in what I refer to as luxury, while most business class travelers would simply call it “the necessary.”


MY OPENSKIES EXPERIENCE

(OpenSkies = a wholly owned subsidiary of British Airways currently flying only two routes, between JFK and Amsterdam or Paris.]


From the OpenSkies website: “The goal of our new airline is to go beyond the status quo and bring you something unique - something that redefines personalised service. We aspire to be different in everything we do, from our swift check-in to our thoughtfully designed cabins to our a la carte meal selections and award-winning wine selection. Plus, our proven, fuel-efficient Boeing 757 aircraft never have more than 64 passengers per flight. We hope to make comfort standard for every flight.”


BIZ CLASS

So, come with me now as I bring my well-traveled yet coach-classed self to Wednesday, October 15, after I accepted the opportunity (NOT paid for by OpenSkies so that I was free to tell it like I really lived it) to board OpenSkies’ inaugural flight from JFK to AMS. (They’ve been flying JFK to Paris for a couple months.) I traveled my outbound trip in their officially titled BIZ Class. Even though their website boasts, “This is not typical business class,” the only thing I actually know about typical business class is that I cannot afford it, and that I am incredibly happy for those who can. Life on the road is difficult; any and all extra affordable (and isn’t that relative?!) comforts are golden.


My return trip was booked in their PREM+ (more later); these are the only two class tickets OpenSkies sells—coach travel be GONE!). But, because of my outbound BIZ class ticket, for the first time in my life, I was able to enjoy an airline lounge experience. (British Airways lounges are not open to OpenSkies PREM+ flyers. Just the BIZ whizzes.) Since I have no point of comparison, I’m sure you seasoned lounge folks will file this where you will, especially if you’re a gold+max+platinum+million-bazillion mile lounge lizard—well, you know what I mean. But I’d like to go on the record as saying that my virgin experience with the BA lounge at JFK was awesome.


True to their motto and intent, OpenSkies folks were front and center to meet and greet us, and to proudly celebrate their inaugural flight to AMS. They offered a special welcome table set up with cheeses and beers, Amsterdam maps and chocolates. They were friendly and clearly excited about their big day. I, of course, was front and center at the table with them, chatting, gathering info, pounding down a plate of cheese (wonderful cheese!) and crackers, every bite for which I never once had to retrieve my wallet. (Coach traveler, remember.)


Since the BA lounge is large and rambling--including a separate restaurant for pre-flight meals, should you decide to board your flight and go straight to sleep; an Elemis Travel Spa; a well-stocked bar; computer stations; separate “living room” settings; a generous and diverse light fair food offering -- I was in awe, sort of like a kid in fairyland. I sat in a few cushy-chair locations, just because I could. This is quite the switch-up from wandering around looking for crowded and uncomfortable terminal and/or gate seating, or standing in line for a hot dog, or schlepping my bags from here to there realizing that “available” Wi-Fi does not usually mean “free” Wi-Fi.. Since I knew my PREM+ return wouldn’t get me in the BA lounge in AMS, I decided to truly kick back and enjoy the opportunity. After all, I was traveling to Amsterdam (also a first), AND IN BIZ CLASS!


As we boarded, I’m sure I was bug-eyed. What I saw was nothing like I’d ever seen before—although I’m told these types of seats were the older version of British Airways business class (not first class) seats. Even though I’d seen picture of the sleeping man (click on Biz) on the OpenSkies website, it was still, to be honest, kind of surreal. Passengers traveling together could face each other and chat, rather than talking side-by-side. Passengers not wanting to dialogue with (or see) their neighbor (or spouse) only needed to unfold the fan-like divider between them.


When I finally stopped gawking and settled in to build my nest, the next thing I noticed was that there was no place under the seat in front of me for my stuff. (We are what we are.) I quickly learned that one needs to plan ahead in OpenSkies BIZ class. A gypsy needs to think through what she wants out of her stuff bag and remove it before stowing it overhead, or she (a very short she) needs to stand up and drag her overhead bag down to retrieve every this-and-that. So, I prowled through my red bag, pulled out my noise reduction headset, my book, my MP3 player, my lip gloss and . . . then tried to figure out where they were supposed to go once/while I sat down. Where was my in-front-of-me pocket? I felt like I was tucking myself in for the night, real tight like; it took me about thirty seconds to spill the glass of water they gave me (a real glass and not the screw-on lid plastic bottle), which needed to rest on this teensy pull-down shelf which is the triangle-shaped item, upper right, to the right of the black space.


Nonetheless, the seat was extremely comfortable. I enjoyed playing with all the electronic buttons that adjusted every part of it. However, the foot rest to help give you to the full 180 recline needed to be manually unbuckled and lowered. (left) I do not advise reclining and raising your legs before you try this. Don’t ask me how I pulled this off, unless you’d like to hear a description of a beached whale in a telephone booth.


Beverages of all types were offered (no reaching for my wallet); they served the best packet of nuts I’ve ever tasted; and the flight attendants seemed truly glad to have us on board. They even served champagne (again, no wallet) and presented a toast for their inaugural flight. Very festive! They set each of us up with our personal entertainment centers (excellent selection of options!), pointed out universal plugs for computer use, served us a delicious dinner (choice of 3 courses), and gave us comfy blankets and pillows. In all the inaugural excitement, our cabin’s flight attendant forgot to offer us eye masks and fluffy socks (I learned about this later) in case we desired to shut out the world and waggle our toes. However, I didn’t miss them.


I was asked if I’d like to be awakened for a light breakfast. Hel-LO? FOOD—for which I’m not getting out my wallet?! Of course! Breakfast was preceded by a hot towel with which to refresh my hands and face. This sure beats the cold Huggies Baby Wipes I usually travel with for this same purpose!


Now, it’s possible the majority of these amenities and niceties, at least in some form, are always available to business and first class travelers flying the front of the plane, even when they’re not heading over seas. I wouldn’t know; they close those curtains, you know, and besides, I’m too busy peeling the plastic wrap off a terminal sandwich (take that any way you like) to notice. But I have to admit, because of these swell things, it was the fastest 8+ hours of travel I’ve encountered, and this had all to do with the comfy and constant repositioning of my seat, the entertainment center, the courtesies, the enthusiasm of the flight attendants, the work station options, but mostly, the space.


SPACE

Imagine a 757 configured with only 64 seats! Wide aisles. Plenty of leg room, for even the longest legs (not mine), and plenty of wide, for even we fluffy-bodied travelers (name it and claim it, Charlene). Check out the stats.


Although I didn’t take advantage of it, OpenSkies offers their passengers a personal concierge service; the phone number is listed on your confirmation. Check out their website; you can even book rental cars, motels and excursions right along with your airline tickets using their partners.


On their website, OpenSkies says, “You are our guest. We want to provide you a stress free, memorable experience - we're out to get the little things right.” They want to “go beyond the status quo.” I had the privilege to personally meet OpenSkies Managing Director Dale Moss, and Chris Vukelich,Vice President, Distribution and eCommerce man. Their utter passion and dedication to getting it right for their passengers and not just their airline was inspiring. The intentions at the top are trickling down to the cabins, and in the best of ways. One of the things Moss said that stuck with me was how much faster a small airline can make changes, and how intent they are on staying on top of their best game.


PREM+

AMS to JFK, I traveled PREM+. Here’s the deal: my coach-class budget and personal preferences about things like storing my stuff in front of me endeared me to PREM+ over BIZ class, even though I had a window seat. And guess what? I STILL had tons of room! No, I didn’t get the 180 recline, but I had space galore (I felt way less confined) and an adjustable foot rest I didn’t have to struggle with. I had a small table area between the seats (traditional side-by-side seating) on which to set my drink without spilling it. I still got the entertainment center, the hot towel treatment, chocolates (just not as many), nuts, choice of beverages, a hot meal and a pre-JFK-arrival snack, universal plugs for my work stuff, a face mask, booties, and smiling service.


Caveat: oddly, even though PREM+ only housed seven passengers this particular leg, and I was only the fifth person to be served, still, by the time they got to me, they were out of the chicken entrée (PREM+ gets two choices while BIZ gets three). Now, I was going to opt for the pasta anyway, but this was out of sync with their mottos.


In spite of that, truly, I can’t think what I truly missed in my BIZ class experience, aside from the 180 recline, which, to be honest, I didn’t really utilize to its fullest anyway. I found my back most comfortable when I was only partially reclined. Oh, and of course the BA lounge experience, which, although it was wonderful, was something I can easily live without, especially for the price difference in BIZ to PREM+ – and especially since I’m used to living without it anyway.


PRICING

Today, October 23rd, I’m looking at www.flyopenskies.com website and here’s what I’ve found. Let’s say I want to fly round-trip from JFK to AMS departing December 10.


JFK to AMS:

Fully Flexible BIZ: $3191 (that is ONE WAY—gulp, says I, Ms. Coach Traveler)

Semi-Flexible BIZ: $2442 (gulp)

Restricted (which I always buy for the price point): $499 and YOU HAVE MY ATTENTION!


Returning December 16th

During the one hour that I was checking fares, this return Restricted Fare went from $499 to $738.50, so, if you find what appears to be the best fare, book it! Still, for a total of $1237.50 for round trip, compared to a one-way BIZ ride for $3191 – and barring you can do without one meal choice and a 180 recline . . . .


BTW, prices change dependent strictly upon demand, so, if possible and you care about price, check a few dates. For the moment, there is only one flight per day between JFK and AMS, and visa versa. However, $499 is a steal of a deal and the bottom line.


For the heck of it, I went to Travelocity to check these same dates on a few other airlines. For round trip, first class prices started at $1195 (IcelandicAir) and involved a plane change in Iceland. From there, prices jumped to $3402 (BA) and hugely escalated. For business class, it was the same. For coach? Prices started at $683 (Delta) and zoomed to the high $700s+.


So, compare this to $1000-$1237.50 round trip flying comfy PREM+ with tons of room, only 64 passengers on a 757, courteous, kind, enthusiastic service from employees working for management that wants to treat you right, and yes, you have this coach travelers attention! As for you typical business class travelers, for you, this is a STEAL!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Red State or Blue State, in Which State are YOU?

Today I'm all about my Blue State. JetBlue, that is. That's because yesterday I flew JetBlue from ORD to JFK and enjoyed every on-time, leather seated, biscotti crunching moment of it. Well, aside from three fully suited up Red State employees of Delta Airlines (heretofore referred to as RED State folks because of Delta's Red Logo) who sat behind me: one pilot and two female flight attendants.

STEP INTO THE QUESTIONS IN MY HEAD:

*Why have the Delta Airlines folks crossed over?

*Why are they talking so loudly?

*Why am I ease dropping?

QUICK ANSWER: Because the flight attendants asked the pilot where he was going, and he said Amsterdam, which is where I'm flying today. However, I'm flying OpenSkies. Nonetheless, it seemed so coincidental that I immediately bonded with them. I kept this information to myself.

*Why, after the pilot asked them about their routes, is he asking them if they serve pizzas on their flights? Is he craving pizza?

For now, let's get out of my head and into their conversation, which became so intriguing--and disturbing--that I started taking notes. (Hey, I'm a trained journalist! Step AWAY from my PEN!)

The pizza questions started innocently enough, although curiously enough, then quickly morphed into a surreal grilling . These are the types of questions he threw at them.

*Do you serve pizza?

*How does it come onto the plane? (exactly what kind of packaging)

*How do you cook them on the plane?

*What, exactly, do the trays look like?

*Do you put the trays right into the oven?

Seemed there were two kinds of trays: some with rails on the sides and some with rails on the sides and backs. (I might have this slightly incorrect, but there were two types.) The flight attendants, who were now as curious as me, told him that one type of tray was used in one aircraft, and the other in another. (Get that?) "Seven fives," was often mentioned as one of the "types" of plane. My apologies: I don't speak airline speak.

BACK TO THE PILOT'S QUESTIONS:

*Who checks if you have the right type of trays on the right plane?

*Is checking that a regular part of your pre-flight?

ANSWER FROM THE FLIGHT ATTENDANTS: "The Bs" check the food." This answer was obviously coming from the As, who knew everything, but who were clearly becoming increasing weirded out by the pilot's obsession with the pizzas and pizza trays (HEL-LO! You're supposed to be FLYING!), same as me.

SIDE NOTE: Also, even though it was now only 10 AM, I was crazy for pizza.

BACK IN MY HEAD: Hm. If there's going to be blame at the end of this odd encounter, BLAME IT ON THE Bs! Way to cover yourselves, ladies!

Since I don't speak their language, I'm assuming The Bs is the second string flight attendants, whatever that means. Maybe those who have to work with coach folks like me?

Many more specific technical Q&As followed, including the exact temperatures of the ovens. The pilot's tone of voice was becoming more and more tense and his questions more accusatory--especially since one of the flight attendants offered that she'd recently received an e-mail talking about the trays and this exact distinction between aircraft and trays, and how critical it was that the right tray gets into the right plane.

*What did you do about that e-mail? (The pilot's tone shifted here. He was a four-star General and they were in the hot seat.)

ANSWER: "I remembered it, but also realized that The Bs are responsible for checking those things, and that CATERING is responsible for putting the right trays filled with those pizzas that need to be cooked onto the correct planes." (Obviously, these aren't direct quotes, but they are certainly the gist of them.)

BACK IN MY HEAD: A-HAH! CATERING did it! And, what on earth is he getting at? Are we dealing with an obsessive compulsive pilot here?

BACK TO THE PILOT:

*If you noticed that the wrong type of rack was in the plane, what would you do?"

RESPONSE: "The problem is, we can't really see them that well, especially once they're in there."

Pause ... Then one of the flight attendants finally asked, "Have you had some type of problem with the pizzas?"

BACK IN MY HEAD: Exactly!

THE BOMB FROM THE PILOT: "Yes. All the boxes of pizza caught on fire during one of my recent flights. We got it under control, but it could have been much more disastrous."

A breathtaking and breath holding moment followed.

Then the pilot began instructing rather than asking. He started with a repeat of his last question. "If you noticed that the wrong type of rack was in the plane, what would you do? And, are you checking?"

*If there was an e-mail about this, he said, there must have been other problems. It seems there is something critical here to be dealt with. "So, if you noticed the wrong tray was on your plane, what would you do?" (He did not wait for an answer.) "You should come to the pilot and say, 'We're going nowhere. We are at risk: the pizzas are in the wrong trays.'"

DELAYED QUESTION FROM FLIGHT ATTENDANTS TO THE PILOT:

*Did you have to land when you had the fire? ("No. We got the fire under control. But it could have been much worse.")

The pilot again put them through the entire drill about who looked for what, checked what, whose responsibility it was, and he wondered if CATERING got that memo. There was agreement by ALL that it was visually difficult to detect if the right trays were in the right planes.

BACK IN MY HEAD: I AM FREAKING OUT!

But one thing was clear: he was holding them entirely responsible to check what they were supposed to check; he was doing all he could to present the gravity of the situation; he wasn't happy with an email dealing with an issue that should rather be fixed (i.e., quit having cardboard or whatever involved, that, given the wrong tray in the wrong airplane, could cause a fire); he never--EVER--wanted to have it happen again. His level of frustration and concern with process and procedure spoke volumes. I hope all three of them called their superiors and chimed in about this safety risk.

BACK IN MY HEAD (scary, ey?): There is a bigger issue here: Red State or Blue State, Green State or Pink State, how about we stop beating around the bush, asking backhanded questions and pointing fingers. How about together, we face things head on, ask the hard questions, don't stop asking them until we get to the core of them, then work together to resolve them.

AND NOW, BACK TO MY BLUE STATE: This morning I received an email from JetBlue asking me to fill out a questionnaire about how they did with my flight yesterday. Seriously, I want to thank them for not serving pizza, something I never thought I'd hear myself say.

Also, I'm thinking all airlines should be sending this type of follow-up email to their pilots and flight attendants. And that corporate should be reading their responses, then acting on them.

If you know anybody who has the power to look into this type of issue, no matter WHAT airline, please send them this link.

Thank you, Blues, Reds, Greens and Pinks. For the good of the entire world, may we all play nicely together.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Calling All Travelers

Sometimes the "easy part" which will surely "save you money" doesn't turn out that way, on either count. Especially when it comes to technology. Case in point: international travel and staying in touch.

THE PREEMPT: If you're an ongoing globetrotter and enjoy an unlimited expense account (plus your own IT department and wads of patience), the following scenario might not ring your "I get it" bells. However, if you're self-employed or encouraged to "make due" -- especially since NBC just broke in again with today's worst-case scenario regarding the stock market -- you might relate. If you are married or often have to leave a significant other behind, you might even moan with relatability.

And now, on with the frustration!

For years, I've heard people talk about Skype. "You don't Skype?" "We use Skype all the time!" "Skype: best thing going." "I talk to my brother in Australia and it doesn't cost us a penny." "I held a video conference call for 4 hours with people all over the world and the whole thing only cost me $5 using Skype."

Nice. But I don't need to use Skype. I have a cell phone for which I already pay for so many minutes, so why not use them? I have no need to chat with people all over the world. We very happily use Vonage at home, which allows us to talk to anyone in the country (and many places out of it) for as long as we want, all for one monthly price of about thirty bucks, which includes tons of cool options. We have email, stationary and loud voices. We do not need Skype.

Then, my upcoming business trip to Amsterdam changed everything, especially my mind: My Verizon phone won't work in Amsterdam. NEW GAME!

Let us consider some of the options for staying in touch with my Dearly Beloved while I'm gone.

*The GSM Verizon phone to which I considered upgrading (I'm due for money off on an upgrade) will work there, but not here in MN where I come hide to write. (long story)

*For only six cents/minute, George can call me in AMS using our Vonage phone, but since I won't have a personal cell phone number for him to call, that just leaves my hotel rooms. Sure, we can set up times, but the 7-hour difference isn't too convenient. Plus, I don't know what my schedule will be, and I'm staying in 3 different hotels over five nights.

*Renting an international Verizon phone, which Verizon told me was an option, is Really Expensive. Trying to find out just how expensive was next to impossible. I am a long-time Verizon believer, but, Dear Verizon folks, you need to get some customer training in place to handle this query.

*Verizon offers exactly one (count them, one) Global phone that isn't a Blackberry, which I don't want. At least not right now, since I cannot justify the extra monthly fees to get my email while I'm driving, sitting in the bathroom or waiting for the show to start--although as soon as I typed those things, I thought for a moment I might need to do all of them.

*A friend encouraged me to buy a Mobal GSM world phone. According to Mobal's website, you can buy the phone for $49, get a twenty-buck credit and keep the phone "forever." (Do you know any technology that works "forever?"**) This $49 phone will not work in the US. However, you can spent $99 and buy one that does. Apparently the only other cost is for the minutes you use.

Since I'm currently (at this writing moment) stuck with dial-up in a remote location, trying to toodle around Mobal's website was head-banging. (Otherwise, it's fine.) One page automatically loaded an audio. So, everything stalled while it downloaded (or buffered, or whatever they do) audio files, and then I heard two words, then waited another thirty seconds for the next two words--until I finally noticed the link to stop it. When I called the 888 number and asked about rates etc., I learned that an AMS to AMS local call would cost $1.25 per minute. YIKES! (I am spoiled, no doubt about it.) I didn't even ask about AMS to USA, but while I was in a Wi-Fi zone in a coffee shop, I went back to Mobal.com and learned it would be $1.50 per minute. Now, were I to have an emergency, that would be a deal.

But honestly, I don't need another phone, and the regularity (or rather lack thereof) of my international travel hardly seems to make this option worth it--although I'm keeping it in my "maybe" file. But I'll have to trip my trigger soon: the woman on the phone said they ONLY deliver to the US and that I cannot buy it in AMS. (This seems contrary to what my friend told me . . . ) I'd LOVE if some of you out there who've tried Mobal would weigh in. However, since, by the time you read this, I'll be less than a week away from my trip, shipping will likely cost me another forty "overnight" bucks.

*Skype. (Ah, as the worm turns.) "Charlene, why don't you check into Skype!? You can talk to each other for FREE using your computers and Skype-to-Skype calling!"

So, I went to Skype.com and tried to educate myself about the options. Seemed do-able, although limiting. After all, I don't walk around with my laptop in a holster clip, and how would I get connected to the internet while floating down a canal anyway? But it's FREE, right?

It was easy to download Skype into my laptop. They even integrate a testing element that enables you to make sure you can be heard. Which I couldn't. Because I didn't have a microphone. So, I went thrashing through my office closet looking to see if I had one left over from "something." And I did!

It was easy to download Skype into George's desktop. He never keeps his speakers turned on, so we had to retrain for that. ("Hey, if you can't hear the ring, how will you know I'm calling?") Then I went searching for another microphone, which I found in my bag of "technical stuff" from back in the days when I recorded myself (self to self) at speaking engagements in order to produce audio tapes to sell. Which I did. (I'm out of them now, and technology and my speaking topics have moved on, so don't contact me to buy them. At least not yet. After all, I did find that bag of outdated technology**.)

Voila! Even though we put up with a little microphone squealing, George and I eventually got ourselves talking to each other, me from the living room on my laptop and he in his bedroom on his computer. HE COULD EVEN SEE ME; my laptop has a built-in web cam! Of course some of the "talking" was us yelling up or down the stairs to and at each other as I strived to give more specific instruction--like "PUT YOUR MOUTH CLOSER TO THE MICROPHONE!"

Two days later, I tried a "surprise Skype call" to George. George is a good man, a smart man, a kind man. But he had not been trained for the NEW set of icons that popped up (the others had appeared from the task bar), so he had no idea how to answer. "JUST CLICK THE ICON THAT SAYS 'ANSWER!'" Which he did. But his microphone wasn't plugged in. More yelling up the stairs, and me pointing to MY microphone in my web-cam, trying to send the right visual clue.

A week later, I tried another "surprise Skype call" to George, but this time from a Wi-Fi zone here in MN. No answer. I called him using our cell phones and learned he was outside. When he came inside, I tried again. I could see that he finally answered (the call showed CONNECTED), but I could not hear him, so I called him on my cell phone (which won't work when I'm in AMS, remember) and tried to trouble shoot. We could not figure it out. Later, he called me on my cell phone (using his cell phone) to say that he'd forgotten (and so had I) that there was an on/off switch on the microphone, which was off when I called, but now it was on, so why not, he suggested, try another "surprise" test call while he was sitting there ready for it. (sigh)

All this caused me to put ten bucks of Skype Credit into each of our FREE Skype accounts, so that we could apply it to Skype Voicemail. (Say I try to call George. He doesn't answer--or answers and I cannot hear him. So, I can leave a message saying "Life here in AMS is exciting! PLUG IN AND TURN ON YOUR MICROPHONE!" Or, say I want to make a Skype to landline call (when I don't know why I can't hear him and don't have a cell phone to trouble shoot). This isn't free, but it's really cheap. However, you have to have some pay-as-you-go Skype dollars in place, or a subscription, which, if you're searching for an alternative to making your every-day long distance calls, looks totally worth it!

Now it's clear to me that I need to also buy us each a headset. We cannot risk the frustration of being "connected" yet unable to talk. These, we can just plug in ("Leave it plugged in, George") and then we won't have to worry about switches and hearing, squealing speakers and whatever else might crop up. (Notice the two places I used the **? Why would I complain about Mobal's "forever" implication, then think my own outdated equipment would work properly "forever?")

So, twenty bucks for Skype dollars in our accounts, more money for headsets, money to the hotel for a high-speed internet connection, and perhaps the Mobal investment -- just in case all else fails.

Easy. Free. Cheap.

Maybe.

Not.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Whether Yea or Nay, Life Goes On


Later this month, I'll be embarking on a trip to Amsterdam, something you'll no doubt hear more about in upcoming posts. As I deal with small batches of issues (planes, hotels, inquiries, conversion charts, confirmations etc.) and coordinate them into my Mega Master List, I find my emotions wavering between those of That Woman who claims to have gypsy blood flowing through her veins, and That Other Woman who enjoys kicking back in her ergonomically correct lounge chair and watching TV.

It's been awhile since I've had to deal with airports; I’m sure I’ll be rusty. I mean, wouldn’t it be embarrassing to be the travel writer who gets busted for a bottle of water and a pocket knife? Sadly, I’ve been caught with both, although the latter was more embarrassing. The knife was a teensy one, cutesy purple, complete with a sweet little fold-up scissors and a toothpick -- an impulse buy at the checkout counter of a cheap boutique. The cashier handed me the receipt and some change and asked me if I'd like a bag. Nah, I told her as I dropped it into my purse and promptly forgot about. Until the TSA busted me. While they ransacked, I'd stood there thinking, "What on earth are they looking for in my old-lady handbag? Dangerous hairpins? Toothpicks? A suspicious bottle of wrinkle cream?"

Bye-bye cutesy purple knife. But I'm smarter now: I travel with a self-addressed bubble pack envelope in which I can mail me my overlooked contraband.

For this upcoming week-long trip, That Woman promised herself she would not check a bag. She would travel light. "I can do seven days with carry-ons," she said. "Careful planning. That's all it takes. Thoughtfulness. Coordination. Eating without dribbling. Sitting without wrinkling. Packing up after staying in five different hotels without forgetting something in the closet--a trick for which she's famous.

"Just take your basic black dress," a friend of mine said, "and a bunch of your swell accessories." That would be a great idea, if only I owned a basic black dress.

Shopping. That's what this will take.

But wait! "NO SHOPPING!" That Other Woman demanded. "After all, the financial sky is falling. Don't buy. Don't charge. Don't spend any unnecessary money. Tighten your belt. Call your bank. Talk to your broker. Check your credit cards. Watch CNN, MSNBC and C-SPAN until you are glazed over. Listen to the financial experts. Torment over your upcoming trip when things are in such a mess. Hope your congressmen vote for it. Hope they vote against it. Either way, should you end up looking bad for wishing they did whatever, no matter what, blame the other guys and gals. Nothing is truly your fault anymore. It's ALWAYS those ding-dong other obstinate, self-serving, valueless, up-tight folks."

(Pause. Catch breath.)

That Woman who claims to have gypsy blood in her veins just remembered one of the things she loves most about travel: when one is flitting about the globe, one neither has time nor one's ergonomically correct lounge chair in which to sit back and soak in the horrors of the day regarding The Vote, the spin doctors, the analysts, the positioning politicians and other worldly disasters. One can simply don one's noise reduction headset, stare out the airplane window and hum, "What a wonderful world!" With childlike enthusiasm, That Woman is anxious to explore a new land, chat with fresh people, drink in the beauty of the countryside during a half-day tour, float down a canal at night, embraced by colorful twinkling lights. "Imagine," she thinks with a content sigh, "walking the same streets as the likes of Vincent van Gogh and Rembrandt. Imagine sensing the closeness of the life and the untold stories of Anne Frank. Visiting the outdoor flower market to buy yourself a modest bouquet to brighten your magnificent quiet evening as you gaze down on Le Coin Square from your hotel room window." She has reserved (and confirmed, twice) a room with such a view!

But That Other Woman likes to torment. She likes to fret about itineraries, cash machines and the value of the dollar. She stews about security lines, the fact her cell phone won't work "over there," and she wonders if her husband will remember how to answer her Skype-to-Skype call when she forgets the time difference and awakens him in the middle of the night. Yes, she's done that before too. That Other Woman has made every mistake possible during the course of her travels, including leaving her passport at a bank (thankfully it was retrieved), getting her wallet ripped off, and leaving her credit card in a taxi, never to be seen again.

(Pause. Breathe.)

For the good of her personal nature, and in order to keep the travel plans "unclogged," in a spirit of bipartisanship, both of these women need to walk across the aisle -- or at the very least meet in the middle. After all, even though it's an election year, neither can actually vote against herself.

Well, I guess That Woman or That Other Woman could try it. But in the end, that type of maneuver in which one ends up sinking oneself would degenerate into politics as usual, and this year we're all about change and no more of the same. No, that foul smelling and combative behavior, my Dear Traveling Laugh readers, is simply unacceptable.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Seat Mates

Late last week, George and I drove to The Farm in MN from our permanent residence in IL. We set out on the five-hour road trip in order to celebrate first our anniversary, and then three days later, my birthday. We decided it would be fun to hold my birthday festivities near our youngest son Brian, his wife and our grandgirlies (3.5 and 1.5), who love to party with their Grannie B and Grandpa George. Or anyone.


After 39 years of marriage, you’d think we’d be better at getting ready to hit the road together. But instead, the usual happened: we yelled at each other while packing the car. George puts stuff in the car too early, even though I’ve spent 39 years asking him NOT TO DO THAT! I forget things and we have to go back home, even though he’s spent 39 years asking me if I have everything—and I always answer YES! For an engineer, he seems to harbor a block against the spatial concept of “nesting” items for tighter packing. For a creative type, I seem to harbor a great hostility when pointing this out to him. But in spite of ourselves, eventually we got Kornflake, our big red dog, in the back seat, and with a great exhausted sigh, we backed out (for the second time, after we had to return for whatever it was I forgot) and settled in for the drive. Since we were finally in Party Mode (once we got over the SCREAMING part), about half-way to our destination, we even veered off and enjoyed a short visit with friends who have been married a very long time, friends who know what married life is really like.


The next day was our anniversary. What to do? Brian told us about a band that was appearing at the historic Trempealeau Hotel in Trempealeau WI, about a half-hour drive from The Farm. We decided to make an evening of it, and thus a dinner reservation was made for 5:30.


Dinner reservations. Now there’s something we almost never do. We are decidedly your “extreme casual type”.


Since we’re old, we arrived a half-hour early. Yes, they could seat us anyway. Would we like to be out on the screen porch so we could see the river? You betcha! We ordered an hors d’ouevre (which we almost never do—and we highly recommend the walnut balls), a cup of soup, entrées (we never have a taste for the same thing), and we even split a dessert, something in which we almost never indulge.


But before we ordered, we experienced a SHOCKING FIRST, and it seems we had to be on the road together in order to do so. Hang on to your carry-ons: we sat on the same side of the table - next to each other! If you want to see a 6’2” man freeze, picture George staring at the placemats when the hostess set them down side by side. To be honest, it gave me pause, too. But, why wouldn’t we both want to have that terrific view facing the river? So I seated myself. After a moment, so did George. But it just felt so strange.


I noticed the couple at the table to our right were side-by-side, both facing the river, too, as were the couple to our left. I guess the assumption is: couples are comfortable this way, even if they’ve been married a billion years. Or, perhaps after a billion years together, it’s a relief not to face each other. Who knows.


“It’s our anniversary today,” I said to the gentleman to my right. “Thirty-nine years, and this is the first time we’ve sat on the same side of the table!” (I have no self control when I’m flabbergasted.)


“We do it all the time,” he said, gently smiling at his wife. “There’s no going back. You’ll love it!”


George did not look convinced. My jury was still out.


By the time we’d devoured half our hors d’ouevre, the couple to our left received their main course, each of their plates set before them on the same side of the table. It was then I witnessed a hostile break in this “no going back” new “norm.” As soon as the waitress disappeared, with a look of great relief, the man to our left moved himself, his placemat, his plate and his glass of wine across the table from his wife, river view be darned. His wife’s expression was hard to read since it was mostly hidden in her giant wine glass, which she seemed more intent on keeping to her lips once he moved. Read into that what you will.


I glanced sideways at George, waiting to see if he noticed, wondering if he’d be next to break ranks. But he did not. Not even after our meals arrived. All the way through dessert (warm cranberry cake with vanilla sauce—mmmmmmmm), side-by-side we sat, staring not into each other’s dreamy anniversary eyes, but at our food and the river.


When we were done with dessert and ready to move onto the next thing, George asked, “Do you have everything?”


“I think so,” I said.


We took my to-go box to the car and retrieved our lawn chairs. Time to set up camp (side by side, which was only sensible for this part of the evening) for the entertainment out under the stars. (See September 20.) Of course George liked the opening band best, while I preferred the headliner (oh, baby, I love a wailin' harmonica!); we are almost never on the same wavelength about anything. The ol’ Mississip rolled by in the background while we sat side by side and people watched—again not staring into each other’s dreamy anniversary eyes.


When we decided we’d had enough, we packed up our stuff (“Do you have everything?” “I think so,”) and headed back to The Farm. I yawned all the way, thinking, “What a lovely anniversary evening. Isn’t it funny what we had to go through to enjoy it? We had to yell at each other while packing the car (usual), drive five hours (usual), unload our stuff (usual), cross the river from MN to WI to go to the Historic Trempealeau Hotel (hardly ever), all in order to, for the very first time, sit on the same side of the table during dinner

.

Since I often travel alone, one of my favorite pastimes is people watching. I’ve always noticed and wondered about those couples who sat next to each other. They appeared so romantic, so pleased with themselves and each other. And now I know that perhaps it was their first time ever to do so too. Maybe they didn’t stay that way after I left and the main course arrived. Maybe they yelled at each other all the way home. Maybe they were just sick and tired of looking at each other. Maybe they never sit any other way, even at home. (Maybe it was a blind date and they were trying to impress each other.) I’ll never know.


But I do know this: for a few hours on a beautiful fall evening, we were those lovebirds. And it was Just Right.


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How about you? Ever sit on the same side when there's just the two of you? Always? Never? CHIME IN and post a comment!