Saturday, October 18, 2014

European Travel: It's an Omelette Thing (part four)

 This is the last installment of our recent European trip:

...And then there are the airline problems: On this occasion, they included a strike by Air France pilots. Europeans like to strike. There was also a strike by Roman bus and metro employees. Our Toulouse-Rome flight happened to be Air France. Luckily, our flight was not one of the 58% of all flights that were canceled.

As to our return to the U.S., innumerable things went wrong: While we had Delta tickets, the flight was operated by Alitalia. This confused everyone, including the taxi driver who took us out to Fumicino Airport. He assured us that ALL US-bound international fights and ALL Delta flights depart from terminal One, and that’s where he dropped us off. But he was wrong. We had to rush to the Alitalia terminal, number Five. There was little time, so we paid a cab another $20 to drive us half a mile to the correct terminal.

Next surprise: The airline did not honor the two adjacent seats which I had reserved for Anita and me. We were separated for the entire 13-hour Rome-Los Angeles flight, Anita sitting half a dozen rows in front of me.
Oh well, at least the meals were good. In the food department, Alitalia sure beats American airlines. But I don’t quite understand what they meant when their menu proudly announced that they serve purely “biological bread.” hmm...

The connection to our Los Angeles-Sacramento flight was a near-disaster: As a veteran overseas traveler, I know what to do when I return home:
Because there are no direct flights from Sacramento to Europe, I always have to connect somewhere, for example Minneapolis, Atlanta or Los Angeles. And when I fly home, I always have to go through customs at the port of re-entry into the US (be it Minneapolis, Los Angeles or some other city), even though my baggage is checked all the way to Sacramento. This time, we were flying home via Los Angeles. So when we landed there, we had to get our baggage, go through customs, and then put it back on the carousel for our final destination (Sacramento). In addition, there is passport control, and this time, Homeland Security had just introduced a newfangled system whereby every international passenger upon arrival had to undergo an eye scan, be photographed and then turn the photo in to a customs officer. All of this takes a long time of course, and the crowds are huge. Think of an Airbus 380 from Europe disgorging over 850 passengers all at once!

So I never schedule less than two hours for connecting time at the port of re-entry. Unfortunately on this occasion, Delta had moved our connecting flight’s departure UP by half an hour, leaving us with barely an hour and a half to do the customs, the passport and the eye scan thing. We had to run like mad from one terminal to another at crappy LA International, our hearts palpitating and swimming in our sweat.

But the most disturbing experience upon arrival in Los Angeles was a brief “Auschwitz moment:” As airplanes were disgorging hundreds of international passengers, we all had to take an escalator up to a landing, then go through double glass doors, walk down a hallway, etc... However, the double glass doors on top of the escalator were locked! Meanwhile, dozens of deplaning passengers were coming up the escalator every minute and joining the increasingly crowded small landing area, from which there was no escape. I was already looking around to see where Anita and I could best position ourselves, somewhere at the periphery maybe...Luckily, an employee arrived and unlocked the double door before a catastrophic stampede could occur.

It is a fact is that flying has become increasingly nightmarish over the decades. While I have occasionally been upgraded to first class or business, I am not rich enough to fly that way most of the time. And for the masses of us who fly economy, travel is becoming a form of torture.

* * * * * *
But I don’t want to end negatively. While Greyhound is wrong in asserting that “getting there is half the fun,” BEING there is still a blast.

It starts with the gorgeous cities, architecture and culture. That’s what tourism is all about, of course. Jewel cities like Albi abound in Europe.

Also, every time we go overseas, we meet wonderful, friendly and helpful people. This time, in Toulouse, a handsome young Senegalese boy not only gave us directions in the subway, but he also walked with us and took us to our destination.

Another amazing thing overseas is the public transportation infrastructure. In addition to the marvelous long-distance train system, even mid-size cities like Toulouse have state-of the arts subways.

Additionally, their medical services are unbelievably good, efficient and dirt cheap. Two years ago in Paris, I developed a minor infection. The hotel steered me to a doctor two blocks away. Within an hour, the doctor had seen me and I had the antibiotic he prescribed. Total cost for EVERYTHING: $40.00.

The food is often great, sometimes divine. Every region of France has its own cuisine. This year, we sampled the Languedoc’s specialty, which is cassoulet, a stew with sausage, duck and beans. The cassoulet at Albi’s La Fourchette Adroite was to die for.

Last year we were in Gascony, which is paté country. Italy has more kinds of pasta and pizza than can be listed in Wikipedia.

The regional dialects and accents are a never-ending source of wonder to me. In Toulouse, everyone sounds exactly like Cesar (Yves Montand) and Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil ) in the unforgettable movie Jean De Florette. How can one not want to go back to such places, over and over again?

© Tom Kando 2014

leave comment here