Flying Up Front

For the past thirty-some years, I dreamed of being bumped to first class and riding in the front of plane instead of squeezing into the sardine section of economy at the back.

Twenty-four hours before take off, when we logged on to Delta/KLM/Air France website for our seat assignments, we found out our return flight to Switzerland was overbooked. We were offered the “unique opportunity” to upgrade our tickets to for a relatively “small fee.”

We bit the bullet and bought it and let me tell you, nothing beats flying biz on long haul flight.

Once you wave the Business Elite ticket, airline personnel roll out the red carpet. Talk about celebrity status. I felt like Lady Gaga, Princess Kate and First Lady Obama all rolled in one. Check in is a breeze. First class never waits in line- first on the plane, first off, first served and no queue at the lavatory.

We received perks a ga ga from the get go, from the 20 extra pounds luggage allowance to complimentary toiletry bag filled with contraband toothpaste and lotion, to fluffy down pillows and comforters. For the first time ever, instead of pacing up and down the plane to keep my legs from going numb, I flew in comfort.

Pampered from the moment we were welcomed aboard; champagne flowed before the plane even began to taxi to the runway. Just after take off, the stewardesses whip through the aisles with tablecloths and dishes of warm almonds and cashews and cocktails.

No picnic fare in front of the plane: real cutlery, linens, glassware and our own individual salt and pepper shakers. Five-course first class cuisine is so fine it makes economy class fare look like dog food. No waiting until the end of the flight for your tray table to be finally cleared, as soon as one course is finished, plates are whisked away. Service rated right up there with a four star restaurant. No wonder, according to my Frenchman, four flight attendants served the 36 people in business class and that included half dozen kids, whose feet still didn’t touch floor, which seemed like a waste of precious space.

The best part of flying at the front of the plane was the legroom and the remote control recliner seat, plusher than my favorite chair back home.  I kid you not; the seat had a dozen different buttons. The footrests raised, backrest reclined, lumbar roll relieved low back pressure and the headrest actually rests the head.  After a glass of Mercurey, one of Burgundies best, and death by chocolate cheesecake, I was out for the count.

I can get into this fine art of flying at the front of the plane. For anyone with a bad back or past the half a century mark, elite class takes the pain out of a nine-hour ride. The only drawback, jet lag still hits the next day.

American Indian Heritage Month – Lakota, A Lost Nation

Brown toasted hills with sparse vegetation looked like scenes out of a Western movie.  I could picture an Indian riding a painted pony over the rise in the Wild West of yesteryear.  Instead, today, rusted cars line the dusty alleyways where trailers and dilapidated clapboard houses replace the stallions and tipis of the past.

desolate Bad Lands

desolate Bad Lands

The land is golden, not from crops or minerals riches, but from sun baked grass.  In clusters resembling tribes of long ago, only the hardiest of trees survive in ravines along dried riverbeds that trickle occasionally with life sustaining water.

The Pine Ridge Reservation, Lakota grounds in South Dakota, is the poorest Indian Reservation in the U.S.  Ninety percent of the population lives below the poverty level on average annual incomes of less than $4000. The 36,000 Lakota left, survive on misery and memories of the Great People they once wear when they existed in harmony with a brutal land, before being driven off their land and away from their natural life.

The Lakota, of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, once covered a territory that extended from the Big Horn Mountains in the west, to eastern Wisconsin.  In the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851, the Great Sioux Nation was reduced to the western half of South Dakota. Though it remains the second largest reservation in the U.S. it covers an area only about the size of Connecticut.

Once able to live off the land by hunting, the barren landscape offers little in the way of livelihood in today’s society.  Unemployment fluctuates between 85-90 %.  Jobs are scarce and poorly paid.

buffalo & cub

buffalo & cub

Few Indians can make it is as ranchers, so they work for other people on the land they once owned.  Thirty-nine percent of the population lives in homes without electricity and 60% of their houses are infested with black mold.

With limited job options in such a desolate area, destitution has become a way of life.  The Lakota lack financial stability to afford good nutrition and health care.  Infant mortality is three times the national average.   Life expectancy for male and females is twenty years less than the national average.   Half of the adult population suffers from diabetes.  Stripped of their pride and ability to provide for their families, it is no surprise that despair sets in.   The suicide rate among teenagers is 1.5 times higher than national average.

In the 1800’s, the White Man brought alcohol to Indians in exchange for beads and crops.  It was a poor trade for the Lakota.  Now alcoholism runs rampant.  In White Clay NE, population under 35 people just one mile from the dry Pine Ridge Reservation, four million cans of beer (10,958 beer cans a day) are sold annually.

Pine Ridge Lakota reservation

Pine Ridge Lakota reservation

I marveled at anyone’s ability to survive as we drove across the savage lands to visit the Red Cloud Indian School on the Lakota Reservation.  When I stepped outside the air-conditioned car, the wind slapped my face as if to jump-start my breathing, my lungs sucked dry by the heat.

In the Heritage Cultural Museum, filled with artifacts, paintings and beadwork of the Lakota, Red Cloud high school students recaptured the Wounded Knee Massacre in a moving display of black and white photographs. Beside each picture, the story was told in three different perspectives.  The white card represented the White Man’s viewpoint; red card, the Indians interpretation and the blue portrayed the students’ opinion. In what has become the symbol of a horrible genocide of their people and way of life, on December 29, 1890, the 7th Cavalry rounded up Lakota women and children like animals and gunned them down.

“It chills us to the bone,” one student researcher wrote,” to think we weren’t even considered human, as brothers, as sisters, as life.”

Outside the school, a gravel path lead to an Indian burial ground where the tomb of Red Cloud, (1822 –1910) lies.   Buried on a grassy knoll overlooking rolling, baked hills Lakota land the great Oglala chief’s spirit surveys what little remains of his nation, once the White Man arrived.  His soul does not rest in peace.

Divine Wine in Burgundy

Every October I see migrant workers with baskets laden with fruit strapped to their backs, crouching low to pick grapes. Though Switzerland may boast of some fine crus, nowhere is wine more divine than on the rolling hillside outside of Dijon where we lived for two years.

vines and a village in Burgundy

vines and a village in Burgundy

American children in Illinois, my home state, ,detassle corn as a rights of passage,  whereas, French kids in the burgundy region of France pick grapes. Years ago,  I accompanied my daughter’s fifth grade  class, the day they helped harvest the grapes during the vendange. We weren’t picking just any old grapes – these were  the world famous ones on Nuit-St. Georges domaine.

The vineyards on the Côte de Nuits on the outskirts of Dijon extending to Corgolion are 20K long and a few 100 meters wide. This strip of land,  known as the Champs Elysées of Burgundy and Nuit-St. Georges, is the la crème de la crème of the Grand Crus Reds.

Originally, the vines grew wild and were pressed into wine by accident before 312 A.D. Image if the knotted ancient vines could talk the stories they would tell ?

Generations of French children will have their own tales of the harvest to pass on. The students skipped along the rows of perfectly aligned green vines that burst out of the dry, sandy soil and spilled down the slope toward the stone walls of the red-roofed village. Their small hands deftly clipped the vines that held the tight bunches of Pinot Noir grapes, while I struggled to bend low with an aching back.

les vendanges !

les vendanges !

While the winemaker explains the intricate process, kids couldn’t resist popping the tart, purple grapes into their mouths.  Though I love grapes, these were thick skinned and sour and inedible.  The wine grape differs form the table grape in that they are smaller and tarter.

Most French wine growers still hire help to pick the grapes by hand. I will certainly never forget my sole back-breaking, grape-picking stint.  After spending a sun-kissed autumn day with wine growers, witnessing first hand their art, I will never again carelessly gulp a cheap red.  Instead  I savored each sip and appreciated the complexity between the vine and land, the wine and the winemaker.

As my French husband likes to remind me, « Life is too short to drink bad wine. »

Getting Sick Abroad

Getting sick sucks, especially if you are away from home, homeland.  There is nothing worse than having a medical emergency while traveling abroad.  But don’t let that scare you off the plane.  Take a few travel tips from a seasoned traveler…aka your fav ex-patriot.

My parents have made dozens of cross Atlantic trips to visit our Norwegian relatives and me without a hitch.  After a recovering from 4 different surgeries, my 79-year-old dad attained his goal to fly to Switzerland and almost didn’t make it back when he became gravely ill. Fortunately our daughter, a pediatrician, insisted we call an emergency doctor who demanded we take him to the hospital immediately where they put him on intravenous antibiotics and saved his life.  A simple urinary tract infection had developed into a life threatening sepsis. Luckily, we had a Frenchman aboard, who spoke both English and French and could interpret in the ER.  But in the course of ensuing chaos, it made me realize how frightening illness can be for someone traveling abroad especially if you don’t speak the local language.  When packing your bags be sure to include these items.

  • Medication for the duration of your stay in your carry on bag
  • Carry insurance and medical cards and a photocopy of prescriptions
  • Type up a short resume of your recent medical history
  • List emergency numbers of contacts in your homeland
  • If possible, obtain the number of a friend living in the area you are visiting (this is especially reassuring to parents when their sons/daughters go abroad)
  • In the event of serious illness call SOS Médecins
  • When in doubt, go directly to the emergency room

In Switzerland and France, public hospitals will admit you, but you may have to pay a fee, like the $500 up front that my dad paid at the Hospitale de Nyon before services could be rendered.

Jim & Lenore McKinzie in Switzerland

Jim & Lenore McKinzie in Switzerland

The medical system varies in each European country. In some places, doctors still make house calls.  Many medical people have independent practices in apartment buildings or a room of their homes.  Unlike our clinics or convenient urgent care centers in the states, often times in Europe you will have to go to separate laboratories to have blood drawn and/or X rays taken. Pharmacies display the universal sign, a green cross. In Europe pharmacists will answer simple medical questions and can advise you on minor problems. Major hotels have a doctor on staff or will call a local doctor for you.

Accept that medical practices in other countries, though different from those at home, are not necessarily bad.  For example in France and Switzerland, prescriptions are not counted out by the dose, but boxed in plastic in 7 day to one month doses.

During my overseas stint, I have been hospitalized after accidents and illnesses, for surgery and childbirth.  I‘ve seen my fair share of doctors, but I can assure you that like people, there are good and bad ones everywhere regardless of nationality.

Alors santé! (Here’s to your health) Bon voyage!

Deflated Dollar Leads to European Invasion in America

The dollar is at an all time low, which means almost every European I know is heading to the United States for summer holidays. For some, it will be their first visit and like many Americans who venture abroad, it will be the dream of a lifetime. My dentist is flying to Seattle, a French colleague is heading to Grand Canyon, and our Swiss educational psychologist is off to the Arrondikes.[cincopa AUBA_rqiwimE]

Be kind to the visitors. Smile. If you can, try to speak a few words of their language, even if only to say hello: Grüsse (German), Bonjour (French), Hola (Spanish), Buongiorno (Italian) or Kalimera (Greek). Ask simple questions about their homeland.

Even with the best intentions, misunderstandings are bound to occur. A German friend, studying in the US, once brushed her teeth with denture cream. Years ago a 6’7” French basketball player, walked out the men’s store changing room in downtown Chicago in his skivvies to find another size of jeans, and his teammate peed behind a bush in a public park. I was equally mortified when a well-endowed  French teammate whipped off her top and perched on the bow of a speedboat.

If Europeans don’t ask a lot of personal questions, it does not mean they aren’t interested, only that they are respectful and fear invasion of privacy. Food and weather are safe topics; work and income are not. Sharing food is a special time of interaction. Mealtime is sacred.

Talk slowly. Use hand gestures. When people do not speak the language, they will pretend to understand even if they really don’t.  I know this from my own experience of feigning knowledge to avoid appearing dimwitted.

I have dined on local specialties in European homes, sipped wine in private cellars and shared coffee in living rooms across the continent.  Each time I learned far more about the culture and customs than guidebooks could ever divulge.

Greet my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances with a big grin as they travel from sea to shining sea. It takes so little, really, to make someone feel welcome…a smile, a handshake, a kind word. Not only is it good for business, it is also good for the soul.

Certainly the Europeans will be awed by our spacious landscapes, daunted by our city skyscrapers, and enamored with our natural beauty found in our Badlands, Grand Canyon and other National Parks. But what I hope they will remember mos,t is the warm, embracing spirit of the American people.