Friday, May 24, 2013

Like a Greyhound Bus

Today I’m sitting in my kitchen drinking coffee.  Not unusual in and of itself, but I should be in Lisbon, Portugal.  My mother-in-law and I were supposed to leave yesterday to fly to Newark, then Lisbon.  We would have gotten there this morning around 8, been driven to our hotel, and then had a free day to rest and walk around the city.  Maybe the coffee there is strong and European, and I would be savoring every sip as I sat at a sidewalk cafe.  I would be taking in all the new scents, sounds and sights.  In my mind’s eye, Portugal is colorful but ancient, with cobblestones, castles and the smell of the ocean.

But here I am.  Apparently there was “weather” in Newark, and the airline kept delaying our flight.  We got to the airport around 10:00 for our 11:45 flight.  After sitting patiently as our departure time was moved further and further into the afternoon, we realized that we would miss our flight to Lisbon. We still held out hope for the next day.  After standing in a long line to be re-booked, our optimism vanished as the agent tickety-tapped on her computer, shaking her head.  Shortly after this our flight was cancelled entirely.  We weren’t going.  The earliest we could get out was Sunday, long after our ship had sailed.

My mother-in-law, Gloria, had invited me on this trip back in the fall.  I don’t know much about Portugal, and was really looking forward to adding a new place to my personal map.  We were going to be on a river cruise down the Douro River, also going into Spain to Salamanca.  I read up on the history of Portugal (did you know Carmen Miranda was from there?  She could wear a fruit salad like nobody's business!)  I had shopped for clothes, gotten prescriptions refilled, and said good-byes to my mother and husband.  Mentally, I was already halfway there.

Abruptly, the trip was over before it began.  I can’t remember, in all the years I spent travelling from pillar to post, ever having a trip out-and-out cancelled.  Maybe interrupted, but never cancelled.  I've written about my tripus interruptus (or is it tripii interruptii?) before.  Same story, different chapter.  Different airport floor.

Yesterday I got into a conversation with a (jaded) pilot who was also waiting for the flight.  He was commuting to his job in Newark, and had a lot to say about the airline for which he worked.  He bemoaned the fact that, unlike those in the US, most international airlines are subsidized by their governments. Singapore Airlines is probably the most well-run, passenger-friendly airline in the world.  You will hardly hear that said about very many American airlines.  Each airline company in this country is in it for the profit, which means shaving down on just about everything, like food, drinks, good service, etc., and charging for ridiculous things like carry-on luggage.  

One time, back when we were adopting, we flew to Frankfurt on USAirways.  After the long haul across the Atlantic, we were served a stale doughnut (really!) for breakfast, and tinned orange juice.  On the next leg to Almaty, Kazakhstan, the German airline Lufthansa served us a cheese omelet with mushrooms, a delicious roll with jam and butter, fresh fruit and mimosas.  And yes, we were in Economy class.  We were incredulous.
The deregulation of the airlines in the late 1970s and early 1980s may have been in the interest of capitalism; to increase competition and decrease prices, but the end result has been disastrous.  I’m not sure how or if this directly affected airline travel as an experience, but anyone who traveled in the past remembers how it used to be.  People dressed up to travel; it was a Big Deal.  Women wore hose and men suits.  Children were in their Sunday best.  Flight attendants were polite, charming, and helpful.  We used to get playing cards and other souvenirs.  I distinctly remember a candy lei given to me by a flight attendant the first time we landed in Hawaii.  I suppose it was a lot more expensive to fly back then too, and only available to those who had the money, or whose companies paid for the tickets.

Now we may as well be riding on a Greyhound Bus.  Shorts and flip-flops are de rigueur.  My eyes pop out of my head sometimes when I see how people dress to travel.  Flight attendants are sometimes like drill sergeants.  Friendly?  Maybe.  Polite, perhaps.  I don’t think that attractiveness is necessarily a requirement, but personal hygiene may be warranted at times.  Among passengers there is a sense of entitlement: it’s all about THEM.  Get me to my destination OR ELSE.  I have heard horrific stories of gate agents being punched and flight attendants being similarly assaulted. When I looked at the line of people waiting at the desk yesterday, I truly feared a brawl would break out.
When I find myself in this kind of situation, I remind myself that these airline employees have nothing to do with the difficulty at hand.  Rather, I find myself going overboard (no pun intended) in thanking them for what they do, acknowledging that their job must be so difficult.  You can’t imagine the grateful looks on faces when I say this.  We as a society always seem to always need someone to blame, and that usually ends up being the person LEAST responsible.  There’s probably some big corporate big-wig in a secret room far away who is making the decisions, and there’s no way we can track them down for a quick thump on the nose.  And sometimes it's just something as uncontrollable as the weather.  Who's to blame for that?  Would you really want to fly in a major thunderstorm?

We have to remember that there are people who do jobs that we ourselves wouldn’t dream of doing.  I always thank goodness there are kindergarten teachers, nurses, undertakers, and others who work in  demanding fields.  I suppose being a Third Culture Kid has made me sensitive to other people; I have seen so much and have developed a discerning eye to that around me.  Many TCKs can put themselves in others’ shoes so easily and appreciate our diversity.  If only more people could do the same.
In the meantime, I am hopeful that I will make it to Portugal someday.  I have never stopped wanting to go somewhere new.  I just wish it was easier to get there.  

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