Category Archives: Travel

Cinderfella and the Leather Slippers

Bill is very particular about the slippers he wears, and he wears them religiously, especially when we are traveling – dirty floors and carpets full of germs and all that. And never, ever, would he allow someone else to wear them. That would be tantamount to asking rain not to fall. Bill can be so Howard Hughes-ian at times, I could swear he’s at least a distant relative. Even I had better think twice about putting his slippers on and flopping around the house in them, as I’m wont to do at times.

Soooo, when he stepped into the shower after a week filled with sight-seeing and morning to evening side-trips in southern France, he was so exhausted he didn’t realize for the first couple of minutes that he’d done so without removing his leather slippers – the ones with the shearing wool lining. The only kind worthy of adorning his feet. By then, it was too late. They were soaked inside and out. Needless to say, when reality set in a split second later, I couldn’t keep from laughing. I mean, really, how could you not see the humor in it.

Mr. Bill, nit-picky in the extreme about certain aspects of daily life, stepping into the shower with expensive slippers like that – talk about a Priceless Moment! And it wasn’t as if we could go shopping for another pair just like them right then, either. Pretty exhausted by this time myself, I was unable to maintain my composure, and the staid, reserved manner I would normally turn on for a situation like this just wasn’t working for me. It was just too much. The slippers were soaked clear through and squished with the least hint of pressure. Sopping wet – what can I say? I couldn’t help myself.

I left Bill stuffing his slippers with dry washcloths and met Mary Jane and Joe for breakfast that morning, relaying the details of this calamity, engendering another raucous round of laughter as Bill arrived at the table. I’m sure the other diners were wondering what on earth we found that hilarious at such an early hour.

Before we left for the day, Bill was uncharacteristically calm. So calm I couldn’t be sure he wasn’t channeling some stranger. A monk in a secluded mountain-top retreat or Buddhist guru bent on serious meditation perhaps – peaceful men who use words sparingly (or in the monk’s case, not at all). Asking me if I thought a hair dryer might help – I said it couldn’t hurt – Bill un-stuffed the moccasin look-alikes, removing the soaked washcloths, and pointed the hair dryer down their throats.

I hadn’t told him I didn’t think the hair dryer idea would actually work, but it became a moot point anyway as, after a few minutes on high heat, the hair dryer died. Its wire had burned through. Obviously, one non-industrial strength hair drier was not able to manage a big job like this. There was nothing else we could do right then as we were momentarily leaving for the villages of Beaune and Cluny. So Bill re-stuffed the slippers with dry washcloths and placed them in front of the sliding glass door to catch the heat from the sun in the hope that would facilitate the drying process.

Shortly afterward, we boarded a bus to visit some wineries – we could have used a big glass of wine at that moment  – and to soak up the local history on an all-day tour. On the way Joe, reading a copy of the ship’s newspaper, turned to me pointing to a story about Jerry Brown (then governor of California) and his proposal to impose new restrictions on Californians, which Brown deemed necessary due to the drought. He rattled off what they were and said there was one in particular that he thought would interest Bill. It was the one banning individuals from stepping into showers wearing their slippers because they soak up too much water. Too much water, a valuable resource currently in short supply, was being wasted on slippers in need of a washing.

You know how it is when something is set in motion (Newton’s law and all that) – once I started laughing, I couldn’t stop. Tears were streaming down my cheeks and Mary Jane and Joe were also making the most of this moment of levity. When I turned to see how Bill was handling being the brunt of the joke, I found him laughing, too. People were looking at us liked we’d lost our minds, but we didn’t care. We were enjoying the moment we were in to the fullest. Too many people don’t, and look at all the fun they miss.

The real test would come this evening, though, when Bill’s slippers, hopefully, would be dry. Would Cinderfella’s soaked slippers still fit?

Just Another Bitch on the Bus

When students came to my classes on the first day of the semester, they were not assigned seats, and over the years, I had ample opportunity to observe them as they filtered into the room looking for familiar faces and sat with other students they knew. Some sat apart from the others until they latched on to someone with whom they shared something in common. For the first week they tended to sit in those same seats they sat in on the first day, tacitly claiming them as “theirs.” Pretty much all the students followed suit in that same implicit way.

By week two, it was less likely that anyone was going to move into ”someone else’s” seat, even when that person didn’t show up for class.

By week three, you couldn’t pry students from their unassigned seats with a crowbar.

I was reminded of my former students three years ago when Bill and I went overseas with our good friends, Joe and Mary Jane. We traveled part of the time on a bus going from place to place, and it occurred to me that bus riders behaved the same way. Even when they were stuck in seats they didn’t particularly like, they were loathe to encroach on what they perceived as another person’s territory.

Most of the time, but not always.

To ensure you’d get your proper seat back upon returning to the bus, individuals used water bottles, sweaters, town maps, anything they had handy to mark their territory – unlike other creatures of the natural world that use urine for that same purpose.

If you’ve ever watched sheep in the fields, you know they take their cue from the sheep in the lead. The first one to turn in any direction is followed by one, then another, until the whole flock is moving in the same direction. Cartoons depict actions like this as groups of animated characters blindly following their leader across a cliff, but this happens in real life, too. Remember Jim Jones, Charles Manson, Hitler, any number of leaders of religious cults?

Students coming to class the first week or two.

Our last stop of the day before returning to the riverboat was an ancient village some distance from the river where we were docked. After our tour, we had free time to roam around on our own, then wend our way back to the bus on the edge of town for our return. Bill and I arrived before Joe and Mary Jane and attempted to save the seats they’d sat in all day and which were across the aisle from ours. As there were no assigned seats, seats were technically up for grabs any time we disembarked and returned, though our guide said we could leave our things on the seats because the bus would be locked. Like the students in my class, everyone tended to return to the same seats each time they got back on the bus. If there was a mistake made regarding possession, the person who’d had the seat previously got it back.

It was going to be a long return trip to the riverboat, and we tried to save our friends’ seats, putting our jackets on them. When a couple of interlopers tried to sit in the seats we laid claim to, Bill said in a friendly way that they were taken, as the woman had never even asked. Responding to Bill’s attempt to save the seats with a venomous tone Bill generally does not take well from anyone, the wife became demanding, insistent, and rude. Her docile husband never opened his mouth. We’d seen these people off and on all week long; they were always on their own and seemed not to have made friends with anyone. Frankly, it was not difficult to imagine why.

I was amazed Bill didn’t tell her off – or rather, shove her off the bus. Bill’s request to save those seats for our friends, who would have to move several seats away, was met with pure disdain. However, Bill proved to be a model of self-restraint, the likes of which are rarely seen. When we told our traveling companions what happened, Mary Jane’s only comment was “Just another bitch on the bus.”

Classic Mary Jane: honest and direct. Funny, too – she’s knows how to lighten up a moment and deaden a fuse.

Like Nathaniel Benchley once said, most people are sheep. They do what everyone else does and they are not amenable to, or perhaps leery of, change of any kind. But occasionally you’ll run across that “bitch on the bus” and best to tread with care when you do.

Everything and Nothing

While en route home from a three-week vacation trip, it seems I left one of my notebooks on the plane stuffed into the seat pocket of the person in front of me. Tight quarters being what they are these days, I’m surprised I didn’t notice, given the 8 ½ x 11 notepad stuck out at the top. My reading glasses, pen, and book were also there, so I’m at a total loss as to explain how I could have left that notebook behind. I would rather have left an arm behind than that notebook.

I had written two blogs and had a solid start on an essay on those pages. I’m sick to my stomach just thinking about it, in tears even. Every single writer reading these words knows exactly how I feel.

In the larger scheme of things, this is nothing, really. Yet in this particular moment it is everything. Everything and nothing at the same time.

And I have to say that it’s all right to over-react, an accusation some might like to make. Not everything has to be compared to the worst thing that might have happened. Not everything, regardless how small, has to be minimized either. Not every smaller event or setback can compare in importance to the larger things in life, but that doesn’t mean littler things don’t count in one moment in time or another. They weigh in differently, but that doesn’t mean they don’t count. Especially if they have a space of some significance in one’s life, however momentary that might be or how irrelevant to someone else.

Life isn’t all or nothing. It’s made up of loads of both big and little things. If a truly big thing had happened, I would be devastated. And no, I’m not devastated, but it is a blow to have lost those words, those thoughts, and the direction they were pointing me in at that specific moment. Moments like that don’t always arrive on time and sometimes not at all,  and the thing is, I don’t recall where they were taking me. Where they had brought me. So much information was processed between my having written them and my searching for them now. I wrote them down and put them away for later digestion. I thought they were safe.

But my brain was on overload the entire time we were gone. We were in Greece, in Israel, in Naples, Pompeii, and Rome. Cities of Antiquity, the Holy Land. There was so much to see and do. So much information to absorb. So many cobblestones to negotiate and cross.

So that which I wrote along the way was set aside as new things were being processed. I wasn’t worried about it. I’d get back to it, polish it off, and send it out when I got home.

Only it wasn’t there when I got home, was it.

I have turned the house and the car inside out three or four times, but I’m going to have to stop now so I can move forward again. Whether it’s writing about something or doing something, there comes a point when we have to move on. Do something else. Let go.

Obviously, I’ve had a bit of trouble letting go. I was hopeful I could write this and get it out of my system by doing so. If you could see how red my fingers are from holding on so tightly, how precious little tension has been assuaged by searching the same places over and over again, how stress lines have formed on my forehead as I sit here going over the possibilities and looking for new places to search, places where I still might find the notebook that’s surely waiting to be rescued.

Letting go? You can see how well that’s worked out.

In Case I Get Pulled Over

I took a trip to Cleveland a couple of weeks back, and though it sounds like I travelled to Burma or someplace equally distant, Cleveland, Ohio is only about 30 miles from my house. This trip was a reconnaissance mission.

I don’t do Cleveland unless I have no other alternative. That is to say, I don’t drive in the city itself. Oh, I have on occasion, but I avoid it whenever possible as I would avoid a case of Norovirus. The one-way streets, the heavier than Akron traffic, and traffic patterns that don’t always make sense – my knuckles turn white at the thought of it.

About three weeks ago, Bill said it would help him out if I drove him to Cleveland because he had work to do in three different places, two of which were sorely lacking available parking spots near his destination. And there was no guarantee an empty space in a lot or on the street could be found at the time of his appointments. It was supposed to rain that day, too, making the whole thing more time-consuming and difficult. I, the loving, dutiful, helpful wife of long-standing said yes, I’d help out.

But it was a qualified yes. I wanted a dry run to Cleveland in the middle of a Sunday morning when traffic, and the problems they cause, would be at a minimum. Bill drove so I could take notes. The GPS in the car is great but it doesn’t know everything, like what streets are temporarily blocked off, etc., and I wanted to see the layout for myself instead of watching an arrow or a miniscule car on a map of lines where not every street is identified – and inconvenient detours are definitely not.

Sunday came and I dressed casually, but nicely, though it wasn’t a matter of where I was going. After all, I wouldn’t be getting out of the car once I got there. But you never know when you might be pulled over and told to “Exit the vehicle ma’am,” so what I wore took on some significance in the event something unforeseen occurred.

I imagined detours here, no left turns there, and one-way streets always going in the wrong direction. That might be one paper bag I couldn’t punch my way out of, and poor Bill would cut a sorry figure standing on a corner in the rain, on hold, while I tried to find my way back.

Various scenarios came to mind should I be pulled over for something, say, driving too slowly, though city streets are 25 mph at best. It was conceivable I might be accused of…

  1. Loitering – lingering, seemingly aimlessly, in or about a place. Would an officer of the law believe the story I had to tell about how I happened to be, in his words, loitering. That tale, ridiculous on the face of it, would surely sound like I was lying. Hiding something more evil than even he could imagine. Wearing nice clothes, appearing well-groomed, and wearing an innocent, genial face would aid his belief in the veracity of the tale I was telling.
  2. Suspicious Activity – suspecting I was up to no good and possessed of criminal intent because he’d seen the same car driving around the same area in the same pattern a number of times. Checking for easy places to commit a robbery or, worse, looking for a place to perpetrate an act of terrorism. It’s not as if I’m sitting behind the wheel wearing a mask to obviate identification or obscuring telltale fingerprints with gloves. More than ever, I could see that clothes, and demeanor, matter.
  3. Having a wary look – one that signals I’m hiding something or engaged in illegal activity or its prelude, and trying not to show it. When all the while, the fear that grips me is making a turn that irrevocably changes my route, sending me down some street I have not rehearsed.

It’s all about blending into your surroundings, so I’m making an effort to look normal and respectable and driving Bill’s Acura, a subdued but respectable sort of car. Not a rent-a-wreck but not a flashy, statement-making Bentley either. If you don’t make an effort to become one with the tapestry, you could easily end up like the man from the United Arab Emirates who came to the Cleveland Clinic because he’d had a stroke and found himself wrestled to the ground and cuffed, whereupon he suffered a second stroke. And it happened because he didn’t think about what he was wearing, choosing on that day the traditional long Arab robe and headdress. The result was a fearful hotel receptionist calling a relative to express her fear and her relative calling authorities.

Welcome to America and the new world we live in – and they say we don’t profile here.

Yes, I could be pulled over. I could be detained, too, should something unplanned happen. Therefore, I don’t want to look suspicious. I don’t want to look slovenly. I don’t want to look like I don’t care what others think. And I don’t want to look nervous, even when I am. Dress and attitude count, and they count big time, whether that’s politically correct to say or not.

Here’s what I discovered in my practice runs. The next street after 9th Street in downtown Cleveland is 12th Street, and I can’t make a left between them. If we hadn’t come for a dry-run (that turned into three), I might still be searching for 10th and 11th. In addition, I learned that while the Courthouse run would be relatively easy, the location on Prospect would not. I’d have to be super-vigilant in that area.

D-Day. A last-minute addition, the Cuyahoga County Administrative Office on E. 9th Street. was now our first destination. Easy-peasy. An empty parking space opened up on the street less than a block from the building, and we surfed right on in. Twenty minutes later, we were on our way again. After dropping Bill at his second stop, the courthouse, I only drove my designated route once before I found a parallel parking space, a nice roomy one, in front of the DoubleTree Hotel on Lakeside Drive. I put in several quarters and waited for my summons, Bill’s call, relieved I didn’t have to drive the path he’d outlined on Sunday an undetermined number of times.

Feeling more comfortable and, dare I say, braver, I later parallel parked the car on Prospect when a space, considerably less facile in which to maneuver, opened up after my second go-round. But once I put some change in the meter, I got out to investigate my surroundings, venturing into Tower City (a shadow of its former self) before wandering by the Hard Rock Café, the J.A.C.K. Casino, the Hyde Park Grill, and Morton’s Steakhouse. I know their proximity signals they’re all in one tiny corner of the city. So what? How many of you knew that before I told you? I take solace in already knowing how to get to Playhouse Square, to Channel 8’s Studios (unless they’ve moved since way back then), and the Cleveland Art Museum. Now I can add these places to that list, though knowing is not exactly doing.

I can get there by myself – but only if I have to.

 

 

Offerings

Against the dusky blue backdrop a hawk spreads its wings and glides in sweeping figure-eights back and forth across the sky at the onset of twilight. The figure-eights revolve as if gliding along an unseen disk moving slowly in a circular pattern like the top of the CN Tower in Toronto or the Space Needle in Seattle. It’s a pattern so smooth – in perpetual motion like a gyroscope.

The stars my father loved to look at, telling me about the stars, the planets. How they moved about. What they depicted. How far away they were and what they might signify. They spoke to him, drew him into discussions about astronomy, life, death. Where do we go? What happens after?

A child’s smile. Some children don’t, and you are grateful yours do. So sad for the others, it sometimes makes you cry. You cry for happiness when yours smile, when they laugh, when they comfortably lean into your body as you tell them a story, asking questions, thinking of the characters in the stories as real people. Like them: worried sometimes, fearful, brave, happy, sad. We are all the same. None of us alone.

A pile of clothes covers the bed. You’ve not worn them in forever and are giving them to someone you don’t even know who needs them. They will not be required to pay anything and the gift will be anonymous. You have washed and folded them neatly because it’s important and the doing of this will make the recipient(s) feel the importance you recognize they have to someone else. They will not be invisible, not to someone, not to you.

A grandchild who feels wanted, whose life is cherished. A child who wants nothing more than to be wrapped in the comfort of your arms to watch television, to be read to, to be sung to, to be rocked to sleep in safety. To be acknowledged in any way as being loved and cared about. Too many are important to no one.

An unusual bouquet of brittle, dead leaves that have lost their beautiful autumn colors because they were picked off the ground just before snow began to fall. You are careful to arrange them in a small vase so they don’t crumble to bits too soon. Your little one knows you love these pretty things, even if he’s not as discerning about which leaves it is you love. Here, he says, I picked these for you, Mommy. And you love them, love him, because he did.

An adult child who has blossomed into the most beautiful flower. Who has overcome the most difficult obstacles set in her path at almost every turn. She has survived, more than survived. She has opened her petals in the warm face of the sun. Bright, beautiful colors reflect the light within her. She shines though she thinks herself a useless weed with nothing to offer the lovely, fragrant garden that surrounds her.

A lost love, remembered and forever cherished for the ways in which his love helped you find your true self. With gifts of kindness, tenderness, intensity, and passion that knew who you were before you did.

A friend who loves you as you are. Imperfect. Flawed. You can tell her anything. Every terrible thing you’ve ever thought, or done, and she will love you the same tomorrow as she does today. She will care. She will listen. She will be there when you need her, drop everything to listen, to help. To show you she cares. And you will do the same for her.

Standing at the top of a snow-capped mountain in the Alps, awestruck by the stark, quiet beauty of the surrounding landscape, the crisp air, the height from which everything below you is there yet can’t be discerned because you are thousands of feet above it all.

Walking along the lowest point of Death Valley, its unrelenting heat radiating in ephemeral waves off the sand dunes, the roads, the vistas, silent save for wind gusts that stir the sand and heat under a blistering sun. Unprotected skin burns in no time at all. You thirst. You can barely breathe in this insufferable clime. So beautiful it takes your breath away. You stand there to feel it, to think about it. You don’t want to leave. You want to return in the spring when it comes alive with desert blossoms.

Guaranasia, Brazil. A place of love and laughter, of friendships both old and new made in several different languages, two of which you can communicate. The others you manage with hand gestures. So much fun. New experiences, new foods, altered landscapes. Parrots in the wild. Ant hills the size of small huts. Friendly, welcoming people in the town of a very close friend who is getting married that weekend. Different from any other place and wonderful in the best of ways. A place, and people, forever remembered.

Driving alongside the Rhine. Ancient castles, long past the point of keeping hoards of inhospitable, plundering armies at bay, dot mountaintops along the river’s edge. Ancient towns with ancient histories. So much to be learned from yesterday. And today.

Truly beautiful things are not to be hoped for in the dawn of a new year but rather in things given little if any thought in the course of a busy day. A tape recording thought lost. A beloved grandmother’s voice singing a Slovenian lullaby to her great-grandchildren. Her soft, lilting voice a comfort, a joy. Sorely missed, even after 41 years.

Slow down. Take time. Remove those earplugs from your ears and stop talking, if only for a while. Allow quiet moments into your life. Moments to recognize, to think, to reflect. To relish what the smallest things have to offer.

Burial At Sea – Southern France, Part II

When I think about France, I’m reminded of my daughter, the consummate Francophile. It makes setting foot on French soil without Laura difficult, fostering, as it does, a bout of nostalgia. I visited her several times while she lived there, and we had many adventures, some that revolved around the wonderful cheeses of the Savoy – specifically, Reblochon. Our favorite.

Those of you who’ve been following my blog will recall Reblochon from an earlier post, and the adventures with that cheese continue here.

Laura loves France; in many ways it’s like home to her – and France has Reblochon, one of the best things France has going for it. It’s impossible to get state-side as it’s unpasteurized and forbidden entry into the U.S. because of its “unsanitized” state. So when we are in France, it’s the first thing we buy. That and French baguettes, chocolate, and croissants, of course, and let’s not forget French wine. Who could want for anything with these gracing one’s table?

Because Laura and France are inextricably linked in my mind, when I spotted a small wheel of Reblochon in a local French market last month, I had to have it.

One thing you need to know about Reblochon is that it smells. Most cheeses do, I know, but this is offensive to the max – trite but true. When you step into a small cheese shop there, the mingling of cheese smells can be overwhelming at first, but Reblochon engenders the same affect all by itself. Bill is genteel in his description of it, saying “It stinks!” But one taste erases that unpleasantness. Reblochon spread on a fresh baguette – there is nothing better.

So when I found some in the market, I snapped a picture of it on my iPhone for Laura, then purchased the whole wheel (maybe 6 inches in diameter). If Laura had been there, we likely would have consumed the whole thing at one sitting. Instead, Bill and I put it in the mini-fridge in our stateroom so we could share our cache with Joe and Mary Jane a little at a time. In the first two days, we’d eaten close to three-quarters of it and then, being off the ship more than on, forgot about it for a couple of days.

Who knew the mini-fridge in our room wasn’t working as well as it should have been?

When we remembered it and opened the fridge, the stench knocked Bill back on his heels and permeated everything in the room. It stank worse than ever. It was SO bad. I knew the bad smell that was good and the difference between that and the bad smell that was not good, and that’s what this was, bad to the bone. Even I was afraid to eat it. It had to go, no question about it. But where? How?

It’s safe to l say Laura would have been appalled at this waste of one of the finest cheeses France has to offer.

We considered unceremonious disposal in a public trash bin, but people might have wondered what had died in there. And the smell would creep all over the ship, something we couldn’t risk – couldn’t have people jumping overboard to escape the smell, could we? That would never do. If we put it in the wastebasket in our room, we’d have to sleep elsewhere – and it was too cold to curl up in a deck chair on the balcony or on the upper deck. I envisioned Stefan, our cabin attendant, refusing to clean our room; we didn’t want that either. We even considered asking Stefan to dispose of it for us, but we saw ourselves the talk of the Downton Abbey’s downstairs staff pointing at us in the hallways and whispering asides in the dining room. We’d be ostracized, singled out by crew and passengers alike. Perhaps even set ashore, bags in hand.

The only thing left was burial at sea. Bodies – Cheese: same thing, sort of. Quietly lowering our coveted cheese over the side of the balcony, sheathed in white, we would let it slip quietly into the water and sink to the bottom of the Rhone River. You see it in the movies all the time, with bodies, that is. So that’s what we did.

The mistake we made was this…

We had already tied it up in a plastic bag to cut down the smell before we’d decided on the more traditional, if not outmoded, sea burial idea. We’d twisted the bag around tying a knot near the middle thinking of that beloved cheese as garbage now. Garbage sitting in the bottom of a white plastic bag from which I’d not extruded all the residual air. It was still dark, so tying a second knot close to the top, I hung myself over the side as far as I could safely manage so it wouldn’t splash when it landed in the water. But we weren’t connecting the dots well. We didn’t think “plastic bag” and how one tied the way this one was would behave when lowered into the water.

It would float – as our own Reblochon did, adopting the statuesque pose of a swan moving just off the side of the ship on its way toward the Mediterranean Sea, its head held high and proud.

It failed to sink like I thought it would. In my haste to get it into the water unseen before dawn broke, I neglected to poke a hole or two in the plastic so it could fill with water. Instead of sinking, it sailed away silently like a symbolic lantern in the Japanese Lantern Festival guiding the souls of the dead to their homes and then back to their resting places – the floating paper lanterns creating a vision of peacefulness and harmony as they commemorate the dead.

It was a beacon unto itself.

Our ceremony for the dead Reblochon, cast as a singular, lost, plastic swan, was heading out in search of its family, too. A silent swan, set adrift alone on the high seas – the Rhone River substituting for the ocean. I doubt it knew the difference. No fanfare for a legendary cheese well-made. No salute to the Savoy. Bill noted: “We sent her off into the sunset (or rather, sunrise) masquerading as a swan.”

When we got home, I saw a brief article on the internet about the “10 Foods You Should Never Eat Overseas.” Guess what was on it.

According to the FDA, drinking unpasteurized milk or eating unpasteurized dairy products like cheese or ice cream is 150 times more likely to cause a food-borne illness than pasteurized dairy products, it said. Pasteurization (or irradiation, in some countries) kills a myriad of nasty little suckers like salmonella, E. coli, listeria, and other harmful bacteria that can be found in raw milk.

Though it was difficult to part with knowing I wouldn’t be having any for a long time to come, it was probably a good thing we didn’t try to eat it. On reflection, Laura would surely have agreed…maybe.

Ask Me Again Why I Thought Flying Was Fun

When it comes to flying, the two most dangerous things about it are also the most thrilling: takeoffs and landings. At least that’s what most pilots will tell you – and probably a lot of passengers, too. But from where I sit, on the plane that is, it’s all dangerous nowadays and not the least bit thrilling anymore. It’s about endurance. Enduring the complaints of fellow passengers, about planning how you’ll get to the nearest exit if something bad does happen, and about having enough time left to call someone you love one last time. With seats both smaller and closer together than ever before – and with one airline planning to eliminate yet more of what little room there is – it’s not likely you’d be able to get out in a timely way no matter what the circumstance.

It’s a risk, and an even bigger one if you’re not in an exit row, but one that people continue to take hoping if someone’s number is chosen, it won’t be theirs.

We recently traveled to the south of France for a Viking Cruise with close friends. When we boarded the plane, we took a good look at the pilots’ faces, scanning for signs of depression, anger, fidgetiness (yes, I know it’s not a real word) – anything that might signal a problem. It’s hard to put one’s trust, or one’s life, in someone else’s hands. How can anyone not think about things like this these days?

To keep people flying, the airlines are into gimmicks that reinforce that feeling of being “special” in an era when people have embraced narcissism in a big way, this generation’s mantra being “It’s all about Me. Me. Me. Me.”

As we boarded one of the six flights it took to get to France and back, Delta and its affiliates (Air France and KLM) made a big deal of distinguishing between Premier Passengers, Sky Priority Passengers, Premium Plus, Sky Team, and Sky Team Elite, to name only a few. Every airline has its own nomenclature, all of it aimed at encouraging the flying public to spend more trying to get a seat that affords at least some measure of comfort, which both overtly and subliminally enhances the passengers’ status and – no surprise here – puts more dollars in the airlines’ coffers. Like Jerry McGuire said, “Show Me the Money” and that’s what the airlines expect you to do.

First let me say, I have no problem with first-class seats, even if I can’t afford to rent space in one. But here’s the thing – airline personnel tell people to hurry up, get their luggage stowed, and secure themselves in their seats so we can all get on our way. I think we all know that it’s a rare thing to pull away from the gate on time anyway, but worse is it’s the airline’s own policy that impedes that kind of easy progress in the first place. When you board front to back, that’s when people decide to rummage through their bags looking for a book or ipod to entertain themselves. That’s when they take off their jackets and wad them up to stuff in the overhead bin; they rearrange their things, talk, and stand in everyone’s way because they don’t want to sit down yet. This makes everyone, still lined up trying to get by, even slower. I have a question for all those laggards: why wait until you’re clogging up the aisle to do this? Why don’t you think ahead? Prepare? Facilitate the process rather than impede it?

The process is compromised because the airlines want people who pay more to feel “special” and be recognized by all the cheap fliers as such – as if getting real food, comfy seats, being as dramatically separated from the herd of sheep by curtains like those used in hospitals won’t achieve that. And if that isn’t enough to bolster their egos, obsequious flight attendants pander to them. People in those seats pay more for the privilege of boarding first or getting a strip of square cloth draped over their seatbacks which identifies them as special. It’s not necessary. We – all of us – are assigned specifically numbered seats, so what else could the purpose be but to allow the person in them to claim bragging rights? Why not just draw arrows – “A Special Person Occupies this Special Seat.”

And here’s another thing. Not one of our six flights required anyone with carry-on luggage to place said luggage in the measured example they use to qualify its acceptance in the passenger cabin. Not one. And you should have seen some of them – huge, HUGE, rendering the contraption used to demonstrate their worthiness for carryon travel totally meaningless. It’s ignored most of the time.

Bill and I sat across the aisle from each other on one flight. We boarded, stowed our carry-ons quickly, and sat down as those behind us threaded their way through, doing the same when one guy came down the aisle bumping into people in front and in back of him. He was travelling alone and lumbering down the aisle ineptly trying to maneuver a large – too large, had anyone bothered to check – gym bag that could easily have held several two-by-fours in addition to everything else. It was cumbersome and unwieldy, causing him problems as he navigated his way to his seat, its contents shifting and spilling onto the narrow floor. Bill picked them up and returned them to him and watched as he then sat down next to the window in the row in front of Bill.

But before sitting down, he tried to stow his bag in the bin that extended over his row and Bill’s. There wasn’t quite enough room for something that size, and he became flustered, tried to force it in, and, frustrated, decided it was good enough. He took his seat whereupon the bag began to slide out (it was made of nylon) and grazed Bill’s head as it tumbled out. It wasn’t zipped closed all the way and a myriad of items tumbled into Bill’s hands and onto the floor. Bill helped pick them up but the guy shoved them back in in the same fashion as before, not bothering to zip it up this time either. I couldn’t help wondering what on earth he was thinking, but obviously – he wasn’t, though after some significant squishing of item and several irate comments from those still trying to board behind him, he got the bin to close – who says the hand isn’t quicker than the eye!

And what about the passengers? Any little thing is liable to set someone off, and who knows what might happen then. In this case, there were only a few audible groans, but more and more the news leads with a story about “Air Rage” – the first cousin of “Road Rage” – as more planes are being diverted to the nearest airport so the offending passenger can be deplaned. This, at everyone else’s inconvenience and all because someone couldn’t control him- or herself.

Then there was this, too. The air controllers in France had gone on strike at 5:00am the morning we were to return home. So far, 40% of the flights were affected but ours was not one of them. Yet. Viking representatives would be at the airport to help us through the mess we might be facing and, if necessary, with alternative arrangements. Isn’t that wonderful? There were “No problems with {our} flight from Lyon to Amsterdam” until shortly after Viking said we were “good to go” and cut us loose. Then it was announced our flight was delayed and making our connection to Atlanta, and then the one home, became iffy.

Whenever we fly, Bill is faced with a seatback in front of him that winds up 6 inches from his face and remains there throughout the flight, regardless of how long or short the duration. There is only one way to make this fair for everyone – ALL seats on ALL planes should be fixed so they can’t recline more than 2 inches, tops. (Exceptions do apply for special passengers, of course, as they pay more, obviating the in-your-face problems reclining seats pose for cattle-class passengers.) That way no one person is singled out for torture and unable to move because empty seats are essentially a thing of the past on most flights.
There were two or three empty seats in our cabin, so Bill and I switched seats because Bill’s wrath is not something anyone wants to experience – and I’d really hate to see the pilot land to remove him from the plane. We’ve seen enough examples of Sky Rage on the evening news to know how well that works out.

Even our friends, Joe and Mary Jane, weren’t immune from problems. They had been assigned A and C seats which left an empty one, B, in the middle that was quickly filled by a rather grumpy, and entitled, young man. Our friends are tall people with long legs, so their suffering was already acute before the man between them cramped them further. Mary Jane, in the window seat, offered to switch with him so she wouldn’t disrupt his sleep when she had to stretch her legs now and then. But he testily declined, covering himself with a blanket (which one doesn’t have to pay for on overseas flights) and proceeded to nod off, spreading out as much as he could, spilling over into every nook and cranny on either side of him like a blob in an old horror movie, and then some. He wanted to get “comfortable” he said as he nodded off. As if there were such a thing to be had in this part of the plane. Ya gotta give credit to this generation for being more “me-centered” than any generation that has come before them.

Here is one of the qualities I love about Mary Jane – the first time she got up, she went in search of an empty seat to which she promptly directed the blob, suggesting he would not now be disturbed by her periodically waking him up and asking him to move. She brooks no interference – love that woman!

But the airlines don’t make anything easy, do they?

When we finally arrived in Atlanta, the moving gate, which attaches to the fuselage allowing passengers to deplane, could not be attached to ours. Why? Who knows? I can only presume they knew we were arriving. There was a two-foot gap that could not be bridged, unless you were skilled at broad-jumping. It took an additional 45 minutes to bring in another one and even that had to be chained to the airplane so we could get off. Why? Again, no clue. And it was here we, now in serious danger of missing our connection, had to collect our luggage and get through a long line at customs. Delays, Delays!

Atlanta. We’d been traveling for hours and hours by this time and doing our best to be positive and cheerful. Right. Another line and another round of security, which Bill did not handle well. He became rather vocal in his complaints about the screening procedures. We really had no time for this but, given we had paid for the privilege of acquiring Known Travellers Numbers (run by the TSA, probably the biggest strike against it), Bill was angry they refused to put it to use here, claiming they didn’t have that capability in Atlanta. They took our money readily enough but hadn’t advised us this only applied to certain airports. Wonderful. Atlanta is a major international hub; one would think this system would be put into place here, if nowhere else. I think we’re owed a refund.

And though our bags had gone through security in Europe and never left the plane until we got here, they sent us through another screening, selecting some bags to be “examined more thoroughly.” In our haste to make the next flight and gather all the luggage we had to account for, we didn’t realize until we were halfway to our gate that Mary Jane’s carry-on bag was missing. It had been set aside for inspection and forgotten as we rushed to catch our flight.

At last arriving our gate, our worst fears were realized: the counter was devoid of personnel and the door had been locked and closed – Yep, the same door they NEVER open once it’s been closed and locked. Mary Jane started pounding on it to get someone, anyone’s attention. My first thought? She’s going to attract security, be handcuffed, and be taken away. So while she was busy there, I went in search of help across the way at another Delta counter, which was still open, as Bill tried to catch his breath. Joe took Mary Jane’s place at the door when she moved to the big windows and tried waving her arms to get the attention of anyone out by the plan. All I could see was Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate pounding on the window of the church yelling “Elaine, Elaine” as he watched the woman he loved kiss the man she was married off to. He, like us, had arrived two minutes too late.

The woman I explained our plight to was kind enough to make the call that, if you can believe it, got that door unlocked and allowed us to board. I’ve never seen that happen, but it was late in the evening and maybe they just took pity on us. Either that or they weren’t enough people around to really worry about making that extraordinary exception at that hour. And after another half hour’s wait on the plane, at that gate, we were on our way home. Our bags, however, did not make it, as promised, flying in by themselves the following morning.

Fun? Hardly. Flying has become a means to an end, something we must endure if we hope to get where we want to go.