Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I love the airport!

Ah, the airport. A place filled with sunshine and rainbows, good will and smiles all around. As I type this, I'm being jerked around the Philadelphia airport. The airplane required some kind of maintenance, and then they decided to replace the plane. First we had to check-in again, because some seats might have changed with the new plane. I was spared any change. Soon after we all went through that fun, they decided to send us to a completely different gate, in a completely different terminal. Good times!

I was reflecting earlier about things that I've learned from traveling. And the flight is just as important as anything else to the happiness of your trip. The big deal about the flight is that it's going to be the most uncomfortable part of the vacation. Please excuse my voice, as I choose to switch back and forth between first and second person. You understand, I'm sure.

First you have to make your way to the airport. This time, I rode BART. How much more exciting can a vacation be to start with an hour and 20 minute BART ride with the Bay Area's finest citizens? Luckily, BART now goes directly to the airport, making things more comfortable.

Second, you get to check in. This time I was smart and checked in online. That meant that I didn't get the thrill of standing in line for 20 minutes. Once you reach the front, you get to hand your ID to the ticket taker. That person will then spend the next 20 minutes staring at the screen and occasionally typing. They then get to ask you the questions about whether you had your bags with you the whole time, but they don't look at you when they ask said questions. Nor do I think they notice when you answer. Since I don't check in luggage, they then stare at my bag for about 30 seconds, wondering whether to make me check it in or not. Finally, they push one more button and my ticket pops out.

Third, on to security. This is that place in the US where we bend over and ask them to shove the Bill of Rights right up our asses. But of course or safety must be MUCH more important than liberty. I mean that person in front of me could have done some serious damage with that hair gel. I might have gotten my hair gelled. And the Ziploc bag of Nutter Butter bites in my pocket certainly warranted me getting pulled to the side for a full search. I'm guessing that someone was worried about travelers with peanut allergies.

Fourth, you get to go to the gate. And sit there. For an hour and a half, because you were smart and showed up extra early "just in case." For me, this hour and a half is filled with wondering, once again, if they are going to make me check in my bag. Yes, it's the correct size for a carry on, but these guys like to make you check them just for fun. On the way to DC this past spring, the guy at the gate walked by me and gave that 30 second stare to my bag as I had it on my back. I think they are trained in that stare, their minds filled with geometric computations and visions of me pissed when they make me check it. He then said," I don't know if that bag will make it. We might have to check it." I coolly responded, "It's fine. It will fit." He stared again, and mumbled as he walked away, "We might have to check it." I didn't see him again. Jedi mind trick, bitches.

Fifth, your anxiety for the trip builds up again, because you're getting on the plane! You jump to the line when they finally call your "zone," only to find the line extends out of the plane and into the walkway leading back to the gate. Why? Because they load the plane from the front. And people take five minutes to adjust themselves in the aisle. Finally you get to your seat, where you then sit for another half hour. And these seats are the comfort equivalent to the desks in my classroom, which is strange because they look quite plush. It's a miracle of design. After slowly taxi-ing (?) around the airport, you finally get to take off. That adrenaline builds because you're finally on your way! The plane lifts off and... you feel like you're in the exact same place. That plane is moving, but the uncomfortable seat is only going to get worse and worse over the next several hours. All the adrenaline form the excitement leaks out of your body.

Finally, we're ready for the decent. The plane is coming to the ground! Another half hour later, it finally lands. After another 20 minutes of taxi-ing (??), we're to the gate. And everyone stands up. And remains standing for another 15 minutes. I'm an experienced traveler. I stay in my seat. Suckers. And then you're off the plane! Here you are in… your connecting city. Let's do most of it all over again.
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European preflections

I'm about to head back to Europe. As an adult, this will be my fourth trip. As I lived in Europe for four years as a kid, it's tough to have an overall count. In the broad scope of people who would consider themselves to be real travelers, I'm very much an amateur. But for the average American, sad as it may be, I'm practically an expert. Before I depart for this next trip, I want to write out some things I've learned from my first trip.

The first trip was to Italy. The biggest thing I had to figure out in that trip was how to pack. I bought a suitcase that also served as a backpack and was also small enough to carry on. I spent days and days trying to pack up everything I thought I would need for a couple weeks and make it fit. It didn't work. No matter what I tried, I couldn't get it all to fit in that tiny pack. So I returned it and bought the next size up. I had to check it, and it was heavy.

What I figured out while I was there was that my packing problems were due to my casual American clothes. You see, to be a light packer, you need to be able to do laundry quickly and easily in the sink in the hotel room. With jeans, cotton shirts, boxers, and socks, you can't really do that. They need to soak longer, they need more activation in the water, and they take way too long to dry. That means that you need to find laundry facilities, and that not only takes money, but too much time. So I had to bring more shirts, boxers, and socks in order to stretch out the time. So before the next trip, I spent some cash at REI before going to get some travel clothes. Now every few days on the trip, I fill the sink with water, a few drops of Woolite, and soak the clothes for awhile. Then swish them around for awhile, rinse, stamp out the water, and they are clean and dry the next morning. If you plan to travel light, get some travel clothes.

I also learned the need to have the occasional link to home. I left with this mentality that I was going to travel correctly as a European - there was no way I was eating at McDonalds! That didn't last too long, as I soon discovered that while I like trying new stuff, I don't always like what I try. The lousy meal can easily be followed up with a Big Mac. I had plenty of lousy meals, as on that trip, I wasn't good at picking places to eat. I didn't really learn that until the next trip.

But it was a strong link to home that I had near the end of the trip that allowed me to make it happily through the last few days. My last stop on that trip was five days in Rome. For the previous 10 days or so, I had been dropped head first into this other culture. Cold drinks were rare. I didn't often hear English. On that first day in Rome, I had to do laundry one last time. Again, it was an inconvenience of time. But I had also spent the past couple days doing a lot of exhausting activities, so I was beat. I knew I had five more days, but I was feeling like they might be spent just lying in my hotel. I needed something to kick me in the butt.

So I was lucky to find a full service laundry. I just had to drop off everything, and it would be ready a few hours later. So I started walking around to find food. By that time, it was an almost dreaded activity. As I mentioned before, I wasn't good at finding food. Even in Italy, which has some of the best food on Earth, I had found some of the either worst or most expensive (or both) food imaginable (Yep, even pizza. I managed to find the worst pizza ever in Venice). But on this night, fate was with me. I turned a corner to find this nice little neighborhood with outdoor dining, fairly typical of Europe. And right in the middle, there it was. It was a beautiful sight. It was - The Hard Rock Cafe.

You see, if I were to find a Hard Rock Cafe anywhere else, at any other time, I would probalby keep on walking. Yeah, I've had a Hard Rock T-Shirt before. I've eaten there and enjoyed the decor. But after leaving my early 20s, I lost interest. But you see, there were a few things that linked me back to home. Of course, they played music videos the whole time. American videos. Comfort music from home. I had a big, fat burger that wasn't a McDonalds burger. I had a Caesar salad, so that I would feel like I was still in the Roman spirit. But the best thing of all was the drink. It was a Pepsi. With ICE. And free refills. Even though I was there and went through it myself, I feel a bit like an idiot even typing about the event and how excited I was for ice and refills. But at that moment almost six years ago, it was a huge deal, and it got me through the next few days with a renewed vigor.

I don't want to type out the stories right now, but here are some other things I learned about travel in Europe. 1. Always check your pizza to see if it was cut into slices. 2. Check the top of your bottle to see if it's a twist off. 3. If you aren't 100% sure you know where the bus goes after your stop, don't stay on to sight see. They don't all make round trips (D'oh!)

My second trip was the biggie. I was there for six weeks, covering as much of Western Europe as I could. I discovered that it was just a bit too long. I was ready to come home about about five, and I kinda started losing it a bit. When you start talking to yourself out loud (in your head or mumbling lightly is always perfectly acceptable) at the Aquarium Portugal about the majesty of the Ocean (singular), it's about two days after you should have gone home.

The third trip was to Central Europe. You can see the details of that trip on my website (www.scottcharris.com), though I still haven't finished the last four days. I keep telling myself that I will actually finish the website, and perhaps this trip will encourage me to do so. I tried to make the site much more complicated than it needed to be. For this trip, I'm going to post some pictures and updates to the blog. I know that I'll put something on the website. But it won't be as complicated, especially since I don't really know how to use the software that I have on this laptop.

So here's the approximate schedule. I arrive in Stockholm Wednesday morning. I'll take an overnight cruise to Tallinn, Estonia, then spend Thursday night there. On Friday, I speed up to Helsinki, Finland and spend the night there. Saturday night I'll take another overnight cruise back to Stockholm. On Sunday I start the tour. Here are the details. Late afternoon of the tours end, Day 14 ( July 4) I'll fly back to Oslo to spend the night before flying back home on the 5th. So when I have some internet access, I'll let you know how I'm doing and show you a few pictures.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Clean sweep!

The committee has decided! Every week, every month, and now the year. It's quite an honor, and it's good to know when you're the best.

And just for the sake of posterity before I have to erase it:

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Heh heh - taint

The worst taint is ignorance. Destroy this one taint and become taintless. - Buddha...