Twelve Tips for Air Travel in the 21st Century

Sometimes, when when there are no glitches, Air Travel rocks. But most of the time, it has become a nightmare. Make the best out of it with a few tips:

1. Never trust what the airline say.

2. When airline staff  say« No problem » it really means « Don’t KNOW the problem. »

3. Fly at times when no one else wants to, for example Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, Easter Sunday.

4. Carry aboard prescription medicines for the duration of the trip vacation and a written explanation of one’s medical condition.

5. Pack snacks such as nuts, dried fruits, and cereal bars. Airlines may charge $3  for a small package of M & Ms or chips.

6. A small empty water bottle passes through security controls and can be refilled as needed.

7. Nowhere is Murphy’s Law (Sod’s Law in the UK) more prevalent than in air travel « accept that what can go wrong, will go worse than you would dream ».

8. Limit carry on baggage as courtesy to fellow passengers, so they won’t have to stow their luggage ten rows away from their assignments seats.

9. An electronic seat assignment does not guarantee a boarding pass, and a frequent flyer membership these days is nothing more than another plastic card in your pocket.

10. Wear comfortable, layered clothes, which make it easy to disrobe at security and to accommodate fluctuating temperature in the aircraft.

11. Forget cost cutting, book the direct flight whenever possible. In the end, it costs less than additional taxi fares, meals and hotel rooms when you miss your connecting flight.

12. Acknowledge that the skies are no longer friendly. Airline companies, even code sharing partners, are at war and passengers are in the line of fire. Accept what you are : at the best a user and very rarely a customer.

Eventually, get rich and fly First, it might do the trick…May be.

Expat Women: Confessions For Gals on the Go

In 1980, I became a globetrotting professional basketball player and my plane touched down in Paris.  When I saw little women with baseball bats (baguettes) slung on one shoulder, and vegetable-laden baskets over the other, stopping on cobblestone street corners to kiss, I thought I’d landed on another planet. I moved dozens of times between continents and countries and have three decades of experience teaching in international schools abroad. With the world as my classroom, everyday is a learning experience, but when I first moved abroad I was clueless.

Expat Women: Confessions, 50 Answers to Your Questions About Living Abroad hits home with me.  The authors, Andrea Martins and Victoria Hepworth, address issues any woman faces leaving home, yet the stakes are higher as an expat.  In a simple-to-read, down-to-earth, no nonsense style, the authors tackle the toughest questions with aplomb. They touch on complex topics women confront in their roles as partners, mothers or employees, which are more complicated when living overseas. The book includes sensitive issues from transitioning-in to, to child raising, to culture shock and repatriation, to divorce and death abroad.

Expat Women: Confessions (http://www.expatwomen.com/expat-women-confessions.php) is a must read for anyone leaving the homeland.  It offers insightful advice from women who have years of experience living cross culturally. As valuable as the Berlitz Language guide, I would highly recommend this for anyone contemplating the expat life.

Thirty years ago, I lifted weights, ran laps and shot hoops to train my well-honed body for the rigors of international ball, but my mind was ill prepared for life abroad.  I had no idea where to locate Paris on a map, how to ask for the restroom in the local language or how many times to kiss cheeks in greeting.

In retrospect, for anyone contemplating an overseas assignment, I strongly recommend 5 basics before signing the contract.

1.  Research – find out as much as you can about the country, culture, customs, and language including work place protocol

2.  Network before leaving your home – sign on to newsletters and blogs that entail expat life (http://pattymackz.com/wordpress/subscribe-to-my-blogs/)

3.  Make sure the salary allowance includes or covers health insurance and costs of trips to the homeland for holidays or family emergencies.

4. Be open minded, flexible and willing to make mistakes (a sense of humor helps)

5.  Read Expat Women: Confessions, the book I wish existed when I first moved abroad

My Norwegian great grandmother, Eugenie, immigrated to America in 1902.  Her four-year-old daughter died a fortnight after arriving at Ellis Island; then, Eugenie passed away 5 months later giving birth to my grandmother. Leaving the nest and striking out for a better life elsewhere is as old as time; yet with high tech connections shrinking our globe, no one needs to be blind-sided as to what awaits. Sacrifice has long been the female’s role, but no one no longer needs to lose the self in the transition.

From the pioneer women loading wagon trains Westward to the trailing spouse and adventuresome entrepreneurs paving new trails in Africa, Asia and Europe, women, round the globe, have always been bridges between generations and cultures. Bon voyage!

 

 

 

Easter Customs Across Europe

Easter is a holiday filled with family, friends and reflection.  And eggs.

Since ancient times, the egg and the rabbit symbolized spring and in Europe, different colored eggs, pinched from the birds’ nests, were made into talismans. During Lenten season in Medieval Europe, eggs were forbidden and consequently, considered a treat again at Easter.

In modern day Norway, during the five day weekend holiday from Holy Thursday to Easter Monday, Norwegians head to the mountain cabins and devour detective novels.  The Easter pastime became so popular, Paaskekrim (Easter crime) refers to the novels released at Easter.

Church bells, not the Easter bunny, deliver eggs in France.  The bells remain silent from Good Friday until Easter as a token of mourning for the crucified Christ. On Easter, my mother-in-law would ring a dinner bell and my children would race down the stairs like on Christmas morning, to find eggs hidden in the flower pots on the wrought iron balcony.  French children search the skies to see the bells flying home to the Vatican in Rome.

hunting eggs in France

hunting eggs in France

In general, the Easter celebration in Switzerland entails elaborate preparation like in the U.S. and Germany.  School children share a giant omelet for lunch and spend hours decorating human sized, paper machete bunnies to be displayed in commercial centers.  Whereas in France,the church bells ring dropping eggs from the skies, the Swiss adopted the German legend dating from 1572 of the Easter bunny hiding eggs in the garden.

Centuries ago in Switzerland, the cuckoo bird delivered the eggs – an appropriate legend for the capital of the cuckoo clock.  According to the Swiss, the cuckoo bird sat on the eggs of neighbor birds.  In modern times, the rabbit delivers the eggs.

Some families have adopted the German custom decorating the Easter table with a branch of a tree adorned with small wooden chickens, bunnies and eggs as decoration. Egg decoating is popular too. Unlike France where only brown eggs can be found, the Swiss stores sell individual white eggs. However, nothing is more popular than the chocolate egg.  Easter is big business especially for Lindt and Nestlé and other world famous Swiss chocolate makers.

But it’s not chocolate; its the egg representing fecundity, new life, new beginnings that is the greatest symbol of Easter in Switzerland.  When the thick veil of winter clouds disappear, revealing snow capped mountains and emerald yards where yellow jonquils dance in the wind, one feels reborn with the stirrings of spring.

kids popping out of giant egg

kids popping out of giant egg

In the past, Europeans exchanged cards more frequently at Easter than at Christmas, with drawings of bunnies, ducks, lambs, and eggs. So wherever you may be in the world, Happy Easter from Switzerland!

Wishing you bells ringing, good tidings, bunnies proliferating with chocolate eggs and leisure time for a good read.

Spring in Switzerland Parades Past My Window

Spring parades past my Swiss house that perches on a slope overlooking Lake Geneva. Puffy gray and white clouds hover over the mountain range where Mount Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, sticks its head out like an apparition of my imagination.  On a clear day I can see as far as the water jet in Geneva and the tips of the Alps, sixty miles away.  The mountains, in different shades of gray, appear to bow down to Mont Blanc, the queen bejeweled in a sparkling white crown.

The earth unfolds before my eyes. In my yard, forsythia transforms into a sunburst. Across the street, yellow colza fields contrast with green wheat fields. Grape vines like gnarled, old arthritic hands reach toward the light. Pink and white blossoms explode on the rows of apple and cherry trees.

Below the fields and vineyards, the rust-colored rooftops of villages peek above a ribbon of green trees outlining a purplish-blue lake dotted with sailboats.  On the far side of the lake, milk chocolate colored chalets lace the mountainsides.

Lake Geneva and the Alps

Lake Geneva and the Alps

A John Deere tractor, like a giant green snail, creeps along turning the soil, while migrant workers bend over vineyards pruning the vines by hand.  A rider trots across the field on a dappled grey horse, while overhead falcons and great blue herons soar.

In the picture outside my window, light changes the perspective every second.  A ray of sunshine breaks through the clouds, casting a spotlight on a mountain flank.

Why would someone with one of the world’s most spectacular views, live behind closed shutters?

Even though it is spring outside, winter remains in my soul.  April marks the third anniversary of a demanding pulsed antibiotic medical treatment that requires me to avoid light exposure.  My skin and eyes must be protected and covered all the time.  Too much light will damage my eyes and lead to inflammation throughout my body.

Discouraged? Sometimes.  Defeated?  Never.  If I close my eyelids, I can picture the lush emerald fields, majestic mountains and peaceful blue water in my mind’s eye.

I know paradise resides outside my window.

Believing makes all the difference.

Self-Service Airlines Increase Frequent Flyers’ Frustrations

The worst part of flying somewhere, is knowing you have to also return from your destination.  The round trip ticket is no guarantee you’ll get back home, especially when it comes to international travel.

I flew across the Atlantic  countless times with my fussy French kids, so that they could stay connected to their American heritage.  Imagine Nathalie’s surprise when  our roles reversed at the Minneapolis airport.  Grown daughter consoles infantile mother  throwing tantrum  at the Delta ticket counter,  « Ma’am, I cannot issue your boarding pass when you have no ticket. ».

Like millions of passengers, we were stranded in Geneva due to snow storms, when our KLM flight to Minneapolis was canceled.  Days later we were rerouted on Continental. However, at the time of departure, Continental personnel in Switzerland said, « Madame may board the plane ; Monsieur may not. »

In the catch 22 of 21st century air travel, you may be assigned a seat electronically without a ticket. The same scenario occurred in reverse. Gerald flew home without incident, but a week later  my return ticket disappeared in cyberspace.

Stress begins with on -line ticket purchase, which is subject to change in availability and price during the millisecond from  booking to buying.  Seat reservations may be made 24 hours ahead, but there is a hitch.   Tickets purchased on a European carrier cannot be processed by an American one, even when it’s the same flight.  The KLM website tells you to confirm with Delta ; Delta site sends you back to KLM. Welcome to the pass-the-buck-diplomacy of airline travel.  Due to economic hard times, companies such as Delta, KLM, Air France formed a partnership ; however, they still act like rivals.

Inclement weather, personnel strikes, terrorist threats,  mechanical errors, flight delays are the norm ; what is not normal is blaming the passenger.   Airline staff reprimanded me every step of my journey.  The first KLM agent yelled at me for not using the check-in machine to print my boarding pass.

« YOUR machine is unable to recognize MY booking code. »

After staring at the computer for ten minutes, she says, « You’re on the flight to Amsterdam, but I have no record of a ticket of to Geneva.  Check at the Delta/KLM/Air France ticket purchasing desk. »

There, another Delta employee, read a novel while waiting on hold on the phone  to solve the mystery. « Delta has no record your ticket either . Ma’am, what have you done ? »

Me ?  Blame  the snow, late incoming arrival, maintenance difficulties, but don’t hold the passenger responsible for airline snafus.

« I suggest you fly to Amsterdam and sort it out there . »

You must be kidding me !

I suggest, « You check again ! »

Finally, she confirmed my status through Air France.  However, she insisted she couldn’t print out a boarding pass for my onward flight.  I insisted she could.  « I’ve flown hundreds of times and always been issued a boarding pass for the connecting flight !»

Finally with two scraps  of  paper stating my name, seat number and departure time, I boarded the KLM/Delta flight to Geneva.   The flight was delayed an hour due to mechanical difficulties.  Halfway over the Atlantic,  the captain announced, « Great news, folks.  Even with our late departure, though scheduled arrival was 6 :45, due to strong cross winds  we should touch down at 7 :02. With our taxi time, we should be at the arrival gate at 7 :21. My connecting flight had me on plane boarding for Geneva fifteen minutes before my scheduled arrival time.  Even without the delay, I would never make the connection.  So in Amsterdam,  once again, I was invited to the tranfer desk for rebooking.  There, a sky-blue uniformed KLM agent blocked the guichet entrance and barked like a drill sergeant.

« Use the machine ! »

«  Your machine reserved me a seat on flight without a ticket, and booked me on a connecting flight before my first flight was scheduled to land.  I want to speak to a human being. »

She waved me past, snarling, « Lady, this is a self-service airline ! »

« Yeah, well your self-service sucks ! »

Sadly, the only satisfaction of flying these days is throwing the last punch.

Snow Storms Leaves Passengers Stranded in Europe, Including Me!

Well, that was an interesting voyage. Round trip to nowhere. We left the house before daybreak and ten hours later, returned home in the dark again. We never left the airport, yet felt like we’d travelled for weeks. Since most European countries lack heavy snow removal equipment even a couple, little snowflakes creates huge havoc on the entire continent.

Lechault’s snowed in at home

First bad omen: our taxi got stuck at the stoplight at the corner of our street. While our wheels spun on a patch of ice, a Renault Scenic smashed into the back of a Volkswagen Passat at the adjacent stoplight. Fifty yards further, a Mercedes slammed into the stoplight on the overpass knocking out the traffic signals.

In bumper-to-bumper traffic, we crept toward the airport. As soon as we arrived at the check in gate, a voice announced on the public address system, “Due to inclement weather, the Geneva airport will be closed until further notice.”

Ever optimistic, KLM personnel insisted we check our bags and pass controls to wait at the gate, just in case. But as soon as the Geneva airport reopened, the Amsterdam airport closed. We counted as one after the other flights across Europe to London, Paris, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Madrid, and Moscow were cancelled on the departure board. Our flight was rescheduled for noon; fifteen minutest later the red sign popped up, “cancelled.”

Luckily, Geneva is a small airport, so I felt at home in what turned into a mini reunion of the international school. All morning, I chatted with a colleague whose flight to London was delayed. In the afternoon, I caught up with a couple of 12th grade students who were booked on that same ill-fated, KLM flight. We waited for rerouting in a line that crawled forward a foot every fifty minutes. After four hours, we finally reached the rebooking counter, and I offered hopefully. “We could fly to Chicago instead of Minneapolis.”

Fat chance flying anywhere. During the Christmas holidays, flights worldwide were over booked. Forty-five minutes later the airline agent suggested, “Sunday, we have space on a flight to Paris with a stop over in Washington, then Minneapolis.” I collapsed on the counter!

“Pleeeaaasssee, I have health problems, can you recheck for a more direct flight?”

By then, I looked like I rolled under a cement truck, so she searched the computer screen again. A half hour later, she found a Continental flight to Newark then on to Minneapolis.

Last leg, flag down a taxi and head back to our own bed. Passengers across Europe slept the night in the airports. Since snow is a natural phenomenon, the airlines aren’t responsible for providing meals or overnight accommodations. It could be worse. In light of everything else that could go wrong in life, it is ONLY a cancelled flight. And when it snows, it is best to be stranded at home.

After the taxi dropped us in front our snow covered house, I discovered students had left a bag of homemade chocolates and a bottle of wine on my doorstep. There is a God, after all.

Bonne nuit. But will I sleep? Yikes, in 48 hours, I am flying over the Atlantic again!