Saturday, April 18, 2009

Travel 25/3/09 (4) – Minneapolis / St. Paul airport

What I know about the "twin" Minnesota cities of Minneapolis and neighbour St. Paul could be summed up by the twin words "Diddley" and "Squat." Although Minneapolis clearly means "The Tiny Apple" (an ironic reference to New York) and Minnesota means "tiny drunk." Also, the occupants of St. Paul are famous for having pen friends in Corinth, New Jersey, I believe.

I have since learnt that Minnesota is actually known for moose, bears, snow, Native Americans and ice fishing. We saw snow out of the airport window, moose and bears depicted in large effigies outside several stores and Native American artefacts for sale in several of the same. Of ice fishing saw we nothing. But we didn't venture out of the airport, so what did we expect.

One question we found ourselves asking of the same was: Why there are direct flights from Amsterdam to these two places when there wasn't even one to Dallas a year ago? The answer is surprisingly simple and nothing to do with customer needs: It's because NWA have their crib in Minnesota, and so it's really to allow executives to swan over to Amsterdam at a moments notice.

Because this was our place of arrival in the U. Ss of A, we had to queue and show our papers. My line was serviced by a jovial rookie for whom speed was not a pressing concern. Whilst we were queuing, we found an adorable puppy in our midst. A cute beagle pup who scampered around our feet dragging an officious woman behind it. Every now and again, the beagle stopped to sniff a bag. Mostly it would simply move on, but sometimes it would stay sniffing or put a paw up to it. One of the first suspects she singled out was Catherine. It gave her carrier bag a damn good sniffing. The trailing woman asked to look inside. Sniffer dogs let loose on passengers from flights from Amsterdam can only mean one thing, right? Right. Fruit!

We had foresightedly left our two remaining bananas on the plane as they had become an alarming shade of black. But the wee fruit-dog could still smell them on the bag. In fact even us humans could still smell them on the bag. Having got the all-clear, the dog scampered on and investigated other smells. He never found the banana bread we'd made a few days before in my bag, but perhaps he only smells for fresh fruit. One thing we did notice was how gladly people opened their bags for the cute little critter. No one can refuse a beagle pup. The fact he was the fruit dog also helped. I'm not sure what the penalty for inadvertently bringing in a banana to the US, probably confiscation of said banana and a stern tut-tut from the handler. Whatever it is, it's definitely far less severe than the life in prison you get in the US for living next door to a cannabis dealer.

It was also nice to see the dog was the one in charge. He went wherever his nose lead him, and his handler just jogged along behind ordering people lower in the chain than she to put their bags down for the pup. After some 10 minutes of sniffing around and a few suspect but innocent bags rifled, the dog lead the way from No Man's Land to the Front Line Camp. He presumable wanted a cigarette and a sit down.

It was after we'd got through all the checks and things, and picked up our luggage and then had it x-rayed again that we realised there'd been a casualty. Cath's fleece had been lost somewhere en route. We had to go back through the whole departure terminal to see if had been lost at the connecting bit from the international arrivals terminal. It was an epic journey, and at the end we did not find our quest. But the tale of Catherine and The Bluish Fleece is no doubt a tale the simple folk of Minneapolis will tell for centuries to come.

Americans, despite their love of life-simpling gadgets, make their ATMs quite hard to use. And expensive. We got a small bit of cash ($20) out of a machine owned by Wells Fargo. It charged us a $3 transaction fee. This, quite frankly, is highway robbery. Which is highly ironic given Wells Fargo's origins. But then these days bankers are far more likely to be like Jesse James than Messrs Wells and Fargo.

With some of this money, bravely brought through the frontier of the world wide west by on highly expensive Wells Fargo packets, I bought a Caribou coffee. It's a local chain, before you ask. It was pleasant, but somehow let down by my decision to go for a cost-saving "steamed-milk" instead of a full-on "latte." (The irony is, I bet Wells Fargo directors always get their latte. In fact we'd just paid them enough money for them to give one of their executives a free latte.) To answer your other question, I like my coffee how my women like their men: weak and milky.

The airport stores sell a lot of local products, particularly faux and genuine Native American gear. We went to one that seemed more authentic. They even had full pelt ceremonial headdresses which were impressive, but bulky and impractical. However, having not bought one you know that in a week's time someone's going to ask me if I'd like to head up a rain curtailing ceremony but only if I've got the right thing to wear. They also had dream-catchers, tiny totem poles and genuine Native American back-scratchers (often in the shape of eagle claws). Many artefacts were clearly labelled with things such as "Made by Julie Smith, Navajo census #123456" (Name and number made up). As Catherine pointed out, having a census number is somewhat at odds with the ethos of the Navajo. We bought a couple of dream-catchers. These were gifts; however, something needs to be done about the fact that dreams, even if initially remembered, are as solid in the mind as morning mist.

Whilst we were looking at the dream catchers, we got a call that the flight, initially to be delayed and hour or two was boarding only 30 minutes late. We legged it back and climbed on board.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Travel 25/3/09 (3) – In the air over the Atlantic

Coping with long-haul flights is different for each person. Catherine can often manage to sleep on planes, especially in her ear-plugs, eye-mask and mind-shield. I can rarely it. Even with less than four hours sleep under my lids I still was not able to drop off on the plane. Two large coffees didn't help matters. But then being stuck on a plane is a good chance to catch up on the three W's: watching, writing and reading.

Out of curiosity, and the fact I've watched all the others, I took in Quarter of Sausages (also know as The Bond Conspiracy). In it, Jason Bond moods and broods through a succession of killings frequently juxtaposed with similarly dramatic performances (operas, fiestas and other fights). Bonds are a lot more psychological these days and villains no longer want to take over and/or destroy the world. In Question of Sportsnight, the secret organisation (excitingly more spectre-like than Spectre ever was) wants to get in on the lucrative game of utilities management. Anyone who didn't already think that water providers were more evil than al Qaida of Saudiarabia can feel a Quantum of Smugness.

In all, Quest for Seweragerights is enjoyable and somehow gritty yet over the top at the same time. Three Roger Moores out of 5.

Sitting in a plane, you can't help but get a glance of other people's screens. These, half-glimpsed images (always from the same small subset of films) often get merged in the mind and you wonder how you missed the subplots in the film you saw about the street kids in India and escaped cartoon zoo animals. Personally, I think this would have made a much better film (worthy of 4 or even 5 Roger Moores) and would be called Quantum of Slumdog Madagascar.

The second film I watched was Suspect X, a Japanese cop drama starring your favourites: Masaharu Fukuyama, Matsuyuki Yasuko and Tsutsumi Shinichi. A repressed yet somewhat tense story where emotions are kept in except for the odd crime of passion or vent. In the end, love wins over science although this being a Japanese film not in a happy singing-dancing way but in an "everyone's doomed to a life of depression" sort of way. Two Masaharu Fukuyamas out of 5.

Sometime during the films, the cabin crew offered "doody free" items. Implying everything else they offered so far had been filled with faeces.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Travel 25/3/09 (2) – Amsterdam

Having convinced the security guy our electronics were our own, we could finally get to see the plane. Although we booked our tickets with KLM, the flight was operated by NWA (who I am always disappointed isn't owned by rappers and doesn't stand for Niceguyz With Altitude (or whatever their name was)). And although the flight was operated by NWA, the plane was emblazoned with "Delta."

This all seams confusing until you realise that Delta now owns NWA and all three are members of something called SkyTeam, which to me sounds like a 1950s superhero collective.


From More's Uncyclopaedia, the free uncyclopaedia
The three main members of SkyTeam were Kite-Like Man, Negro With Altitude and Delta, who - along with Aero Mexico, the flying Mexican; the clumsy Russian superhero, Aeroflot; and the seductive Alitalia - fought crime and generally made the skies safe until the mid 1970s when the comic series was stopped after allegations of racism.

The plane saying Delta was a disappointment to Cath who had vowed never to fly with them again after they were decidedly unhelpful at a time of family tragedy. However, despite saying "Delta" on the outside of the plane, on the inside all of the entertainment screens and staff uniforms said "NWA." So really they'd just borrowed their boss' plane. It was good to see the NWA safety videos again. They have gone for the inclusive approach of cramming in as many "minorities" as possible, including the minority groups of smiley old women and handsome staring men. After each long passage in English, there is the shortest possible summary in Dutch.

English: "Should it become necessary to perform a water landing, life-vests are available under your seats. Place the life vest over your head and tie the straps around your waist securely in a double-bow. Use the nozzle to top up the air and the whistle to attract attention. A light will come on with contact with water"
Dutch: "Er zijn Zwemvesten."

Whilst all this is going on there is in the background a soundtrack that was pure 1970s Jazz Pop. It is almost, but not quite, porn music. Were this music to be played over the top of the Singapore Airlines safety instruction video, most men would forget that their life was in any sort of peril.

After the safety rigmarole in English and Dutch, a map appeared showing the plane's progress. It was in English and German. And later also in French and Spanish. In fact anything except Dutch. But then, German with added English, French and Spanish IS, in fact, Dutch.

Take off took a long time due to, firstly, the "tug" breaking down and secondly, Schiphol's noise-reducing policy of having most of their runways in Belgium. But eventually we the ground was receding behind us and ready to save the world from SkyTeam's mortal enemies of Commies and the evil Count Von Lufthansa.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Travel 25/3/09 (1) – Amsterdam

It has not been unknown for me to help KLM out with training their support staff to deal with angry customers, so it actually felt weird to call them several times in one day as a genuinely irritated customer. I was sorely temped to get really angry just to see if they'd learnt everything. But in the end I was too nice to get anything more than miffed.

I was calling because my names appeared to have been stuck together and wanted to check that this was okay. The girl said that because the US authorities were such sticklers for accuracy (even though highly organised terrorists are far more likely to get things like that right than the average Joa) it was best to get it changed.
• Plus side: they could easily have this done for me.
• Minus side: a change like this (adding a space as far as I was aware) takes several hours.
• Extra Minus side: we could not check in online until it was done.

So we waited. Some time shortly before 4pm, a new e-ticket was issued.
• Plus side: a change had been made
• Minus side: It was even odder than before, with the Mr put in an odd place.
• Plus side: the (or another) girl confirmed this would be okay,
• Minus side: we now could not check in.

Although our ticket said "this is an e-ticket," and the My Tickets area listed it as an e-ticket, when we tried to check in online it gave us an error message, "This ain't no e-ticket, motherf***er." Or something to that effect. The (or another) girl tried to help, but clearly something had got messed up during the change. Computer records are annoyingly like vinyl, very easily damaged. The airline support fall-back was soon the only option – check in at the airport.

So with only 4½ hours sleep under our lids, we arrived at the airport at 7:30, dreading being given the worst seats on the plane. (The worst seats are usually those right at the back where they do not recline but the ones in front of you recline fully. Although once on an internal flight in China I and a colleague were allocated seats that didn't exist as they had been taken out to make the exit.) As things turned out, we had fine seats and check-in was relatively smooth except I couldn't be checked in onto our connecting flight; we had to do that once we arrived at our stopover.

As we waited in the long line for stuffy security staff to ask about our stuff, we watched the silent TV screens. It's intriguing to see what they show to people in airports. Most airports show you rolling news channels, but sometimes Schiphol likes to be different. Today they were showing curling.

Curling is possibly the world's worst sport. Yet somehow strangely compelling – like an incomprehensible foreign ritual. But as a sport it is, as I believe president Obama would put it, retarded.

Before you complain:
"Retarded, adj: Physics. Designating parameters of an electromagnetic field which allow for the finite speed of wave propagation, so that the potential due to a distant source is expressed in terms of the state of the source at some time in the past" (New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary).

If you don't know, curling is a kind of bowls meets lavatory cleaning on ice. One person bowls a large, solid blob along an ice strip towards a painted target. After this two enthusiastic moppers take over and clean the path (in front of) of the ball with brushes. As Newton's 4th law of Subthermal Dynamics states:
"The cleanliness of the ice is in direct proportion to the maximum speed attainable by an object travelling along that ice." (Old Longer Cambridge English Dictionary)

My main problem with it is that in other sports, the ball is what you use to play; in curling, the sweepers speed along preparing the way for the ball. They are the ball's bitches. The skill involved is the skill of being able to sweep really fast whilst skating. I agree not an easy skill, but at the same time not a useful, elegant, empowering, practical, cool, or indeed desirable skill. Participation has the result of making yourself less important than a large, solid blob of who-knows-what. It's a hard sport to play and keep any form of self respect.