Dispatches from the front lines of air travel

Allow me to encourage you never to fly Air France. I should be on my way to Paris right now, but after a five hour delay, they cancelled my flight. It was a beautiful roller-coaster ride of almost scripted drama: The plane has a broken part. They found a spare replacement part! It’s not in Boston. It just arrived from Minneapolis! They’re not authorized to install it. The authorities in Paris approved the installation! We have to re-file our flight plan. We’re ten minutes away from take-off! They were working on last minute paperwork. We were so close. It was the nearest run thing you ever saw. But then… the crew exceeded their time-on-duty limits and BOOM! it’s everybody out of the pool.

Cancelling an international flight is not as simple as you might think. The alimentary canal at departure time is designed to push things onto the plane, not off of it. We had already been cleared through customs, and since we were the last flight of the day, there was no “arrival” staff in place to receive us. Reverse peristalsis is never pretty.

After picking up luggage, we had to suffer the indignity of another long snaking queue to reconstruct our shattered flight plans. After another hour of moving nowhere and getting no information, I pulled the plug and went home.

I draw from this experience two and a half valuable lessons which, generously, I now will share.

Lesson 1. Don’t fly on Air France.
Lesson 2. Don’t fly on Air France on Bastille Day (see also Lesson 1).

I realize these two lessons overlap somewhat, but at this moment I feel the point is worth emphasizing. Also, my editor is after me to boost my content. As for the remaining half lesson, don’t use the iPhone version of WordPress. I wrote the first version of this on an iPhone and then lost it when I tried to post. That sort of day, I suppose.

Here endeth the whining. Over and out from Logan International Airport.

On the perils of travel and travel writing

Don’t Go is an anti-travel humor site. I kind of like their chirpy anti-rah-rah spirit (also, I kind of like saying “anti-rah-rah”). Anyway, I wouldn’t have heard of them, except for they asked permission to re-post one of my pieces, an anti-travel screed called Why Travel Sucks. You can find it here on the Don’t Go site, next to cheeful observations about hygienic toilet facilities and helpful riverside signs.

Soon after the piece was published on their site, I received a curious email from a woman named Anka who said a potential volunteer for her international organization bailed out, sending her, as justification, a copy of my piece. Anka continued:

If you do not want to be a stupid American doing stupids thing overseas, became a volunteer and encourage the people who read your article to became one. You, as an American, will do for once a good thing to the earth and do something good for yourself and kill the stupid ‘tourist’ you have inside.

For the record, I hereby encourage you to undertake enlightened travel and volunteer for a good cause.

Why Travel Sucks

Starting a vacation is for me an abrupt and generally unpleasant experience. Once, on a vacation to Cozumel with my sweetheart, I spent the first afternoon wearing a hot jacket as we strolled together on the sunny beach, because it seemed unutterably lame to jump into something snazzy and tropical. Of course, it was visibly stupid to keep wearing a thick coat left over from the New England frost. And after my sweet and dear one gently questioned my sanity, any retreat to more sensible attire would have entailed a loss of face and an introspective psychosocial analysis I was too goddamned cranky to provide. Such is human perversity.

Why didn’t I just lighten up? Eventually I did; I almost always do. After a day or so, there I was, swaying to salsa music and hoisting margaritas like all the other turistas. But that first day is always a bitch.

Why travel? Where you’re going, chances are you don’t speak the language, don’t know the customs, the inside jokes, the good restaurants. You won’t know if you’re regularly being fleeced in business transactions. Fiddling with small change in stores will make you feel like a five year old.

Why travel? Chronically happy people easily provide the correct answer: BECAUSE of all those things. You’ll learn so much: think of how much fun you’ll have sorting out which restaurants are merely bad from those which are a genuine threat to your health. I don’t deny that this is the right answer. But the initial cranky period interests me. From the perspective of the first day, let me crank up the cranky knob and provide


1. First of all, while you’re away, someone is robbing your house and mistreating your cat. Duh.

2. You can’t speak the language, so everything is awkward, embarrassing, and infuriatingly slow. Or let’s suppose you can speak the language a little. You still feel bad, because

2b. You can’t speak the language well at all (only awkwardly and with that awful American twang), or

2c. You can’t speak the language fluently with perfect use of local idioms, so you’d rather not even pretend, because it’ll just come out sounding awful.

In any event, now they have to speak English with you, and God knows they hate that.

3. You are little more than a wallet. All else is puffery on your part and flattery on theirs. Anyone who depends on tourists bitterly resents them. Why should they have to do a little dance for you just to punch their meal ticket? Honestly, how would YOU like to wear lederhosen and play a tuba every day? You’d be pissed too, tips or not. People in the tourism business vary only in their ability to mask the creeping homicidal mania to which they all eventually succumb.

4. No matter how you choose your itinerary, you will miss the really good stuff. If you plan carefully and obsessively, you won’t be able to improvise and so you’ll miss the proverbial forest for the trees. But if you don’t plan carefully, you’ll waste most of your time standing in lines or sitting in cafes trying to figure out what to do.

5. Americans are bad people, disliked the world over. This is bad news no matter where you go. Your best bet is to try to act invisible and apologize a lot using (without even realizing it) a lame unplaceable quasi-European accent. Please please please don’t put a Canadian flag on your luggage: Stand up and take your well-deserved abuse like a man. The only consolation here is that the Germans are almost as loathsome as you are.

Other tourists, particularly Japanese, are good for making fun of. Try it and see how much it does to assuage your downtrodden self-esteem. See how those Japanese just want to take pictures and then leave! Ha ha! But you know how to do it right, yes sir. No one would ever laugh out loud watching you. Note: this technique is not likely to make you feel any better if the other tourists are Americans, or God forbid, in your party, or God really forbid, your family.

6. Tipping is an activity expressly designed to make you crazy. There is a suave process and correct amount to tip the monkeys who assist you throughout your trip, but you are clueless. James Bond can do it, but you? Give me a break! If you give too much, they will smirk because you are a cash-fat dope, a naive mark begging to be stripped of available funds. If you give too little, they will smirk, and you just know that they’ll be talking about you with their little monkey buddies. Even if you manage to guess the right amount, you still get the smirk if you are awkward and stiff in your delivery. That little smirk is a pain worse than a severe hickey.

7. Your whole trip is one big cliche from beginning to end. I know you planned it carefully and bought the expensive but tasteful Dorling Kindersley Travel Guides. But won’t you feel like a dope when you realize all the other tourists in that darling “undiscovered” restaurant are referring to the exact same page of the exact same guidebook so they can see what to order for dessert? You are just like every other goddamned tourist on the planet, no matter how superior you feel to those poor Japanese, except since you are American, you are actually worse. Just because. Now go to the back of the line.

8. It is possible to die from embarrassment, and you just don’t need to run the risk. Embarrassment sickness is much like altitude sickness. You need to build up tolerance to it slowly, or the shock to your system can be fatal.

9. You can’t win. If your destination sucks, then why bother going? On the other hand, if everything is better there, then you must be some kind of idiot not to live there.

10. Nobody else worries about all this shit as much as you do, and frankly we’re all getting tired of hearing you go on about it. Would you please just shut up and enjoy the show?

Beware of these warning signs during the first day or so of your trip. Give it some time and the pain will probably pass. Strip off your ingrained habit-crust and run around naked for a few days. Try on a little simple dignity. It’ll do you a world of good.

An Alchemist Abroad: Paracelsus in Japan

Welcome to the Twenty-First Century Star Chamber, guaranteed to bring you a wholly satisfying, up-to-date, and quintessentially twenty-first century web-browsing experience. You’ll find no unsightly 1900s-vintage bugginess here: our Y2K Crisis Management Team has performed beautifully and has conducted the site safely across the millennial divide.

This week we present for your sophisticated twenty-first century reading pleasure a very brief poem by twentieth-century poet Joanne Kyger and some excerpts from a twentieth-century expedition to Japan undertaken by our own Paracelsus.

SUDDENLY! by Joanne Kyger

The same Moon in the next century!

Continue reading “An Alchemist Abroad: Paracelsus in Japan”

On the road with Wally

Part 42: Signs of Soda
by Wally

We were one sunrise away from watching the reddish glow of the evening sun color the rim of the Grand Canyon, and one sunset away from the first light of daybreak over Zabriske Point, in Death Valley. We were smack dab in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada.

Not to say there isn’t much of anything in Nowhere. Au contraire. George had been enlightening me to the wonder of the alluvial plains that exist here in Nevada. With no rain to wash it all away, all the material that sheds from the tops of the mountains here falls to the bottoms. And stays there. It creates a nice, gradual, slope of residue, once seen (and identified), never forgotten. In fact, on the way out of Death Valley the next day, we were basically driving straight up the alluvial slope for 45 minutes, avoiding tarantulas that darted across the road. But that’s another story.

No, here in the middle of Nowhere there was two-lane blacktop, lots of sand, and some scrubby desert vegetation. (and probably Wile E. Coyote, although he was much too wily to be seen. Unlike Wile E. Tarantula — again, another story.) And Sky. Big Sky. Sky that made Montana jealous. Big, dramatic, desert but-it’s-lookin’-like-rain, and not wimpy pacific northwest micro-rain, but slam it down, cats and dogs, southern summer thunderstorm rain.

A Sky that was so dramatic that George pulls over and comments, “Man, will you just look at that Sky.” Which is one of the things that makes George a good travelling companion — he’ll stop and smell the sagebrush. We hop out and stand agog at the beautiful sunlight spreading through the high dark cumulus. Menacing, yet beautiful. Alone, we appreciate.

An unnatural sound clatters through our meditative silence as a lone Coca-Cola can rolls down the highway. We stand even more amazed, because we’re in the middle of nowhere, almost back to nature, soaking up the desert landscape, the gorgeous almost-sunset and are jolted back to reality by a singular token of civilization, intruding on the road-runner-esque landscape. Our heads both swivel comically to the right, as the can, seemingly out of nowhere, rolls down the double yellow line in the middle of the blacktop. It almost feels like we’re in some weird commercial, but lacking the requisite camera crew and pretty graphics.

Then an even more unnatural sound blasts us both from our left as an 18-wheeler thunders unexpectedly around the bend and thrusts itself into our view before our startled inhales are completed. Its mammoth wheels roll over the can, crush it, suck it up and around, crush it again and fling it out behind, a crumpled, flattened token of what was once the perfect shape, the wheel, the cylinder, the rolling reminder of civilization… now just a flat piece of aluminum on a lonely Nevada highway.

As fast as it came, the juggernaut is gone. We both stare dumbly in stunned amazement at the coincidence of us, the can, and the rig. A collective “Whoa” settles among us.

“Let’s roll”, sez George. I couldn’t agree more.

A trip to Mexico

As the noble Coffee Czar confided in our last installment at this site, the board of directors for Star Chamber Consolidated Heavy Industries went adventuring in Mexico last month (see our
helpful phrasebook
on the subject if you plan on visiting). It was a delightful excursion, made all the more pleasant by the fact that one of our number, zaP, speaks the language and is intimately familiar with the sights.

I found the place names in Mexico almost as arresting as the visual splendor: Xochimilco, Ixtaccihuatl, Teotihuacan. Some of these names defy pronunciation by the typical gringo (such as myself), but if you keep at it and tame the sounds, you are rewarded with gemstones on the tip of your tongue. Once you’ve captured the volcano name Popocatepetl, once you can conjure it up at will, you can practically see the steam belching from its dark conic peak. Cuauhtemoc, Kwau-TE-mok, was a warrior, and if you see his likeness and hear his name properly pronounced, that stressed second syllable falling forcefully against the front teeth, Kwau-TE-mok, you can sense the repect he commanded (it’s no accident the current mayor of Mexico City has the given name Cuauhtemoc).

Whereas the Coffee Czar amused us in the van by carving tiny animals out of soapstone and scrap wood, I entertained my fellow travelers by reading all the place names aloud as often as possible. I’m told it can be annoying, but it had the curious effect of magnifying my there-ness. Even now I can cook up a little Mexican there-ness by pushing my finger across the atlas pages and reading aloud: Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Tlaxcala, Iztapalapa, and Iztacalco. To my mind, the conquering Spaniard’s names (San Miguel, San Luis, Santa Ana, repeat…) don’t have nearly the same staying power as the solid Indian names. Fortunately for Mexico, the old place names survived more often than they were lost. Good place names reek of earthy there-ness, and Mexico is blessed with an abundance of good place names. And I don’t know anybody who doesn’t need a good dose of there-ness every now and again.

Reversals of fortune in placenames and prose figure prominently in our contribution this week. It may seem a matter of no great importance, but zaP spelled backwards is Paz, which is the Spanish word for peace. In this season of darkness becoming lightness at long last, may peace, and an abiding sense of here-ness, be with you all.