23 February 2007

Up Up And Away?

Ah, the adventure of winter travel. I am off to Santa Barbara for an annual conference. It’s good to have it there in late winter for us wintry workers. But there is always the risk that the winter we crave to escape will imprison us at the moment of escape.

Yes, a storm is 'a-comin,’ and that means I could be delayed. Already I tried to rebook a day earlier but discovered that to do so would mean buying a whole new ticket for $900. That decision was easy, let me tell you. Now it’s wait and see how crappy the weather gets. Remembering the horrors of Jet Blue so recently I am a mite more anxious, imagining hours spent on tarmacks and arriving many hours later – jet lagged and miserable.

Some years ago I said that air travel has gone from the fast version of train travel to the fast version of bus travel. Gone is even a shred of glamour, except for those in the front seats. That’s why I horde my “miles” for long trips like this. Yes I am booked for business class, which for me is a treat. Another reason to be anxious.

Years ago, also traveling in February but not in business, I encountered a strike that meant my first trip to Paris was unraveling. I had only a week, and it would not come again for a year, so as I milled about the Ellis Island hordes seeking hope I saw a booking agent asking for volunteers to go on another airline's flight (the airline has since vanished both from memory and reality).

I seized the chance and soon found myself a platoon leader of about a dozen others. We were rebooked and found a pair of cabs to run around to the other side of the snowy terminal to get in line there.

This was a budget airline, and the crowd really was of the immigrant variety. It was going to Paris and on to Tel Aviv. Even in 1999 I had a moment’s anxiety seeing such a mix of orthodox Jewish and observant Muslim travelers. Needless to say, it was a packed flight now. That I was going to a different airport and arriving at a different time seemed trivial. Of course, I had to let my friends in France know, as it would make me several hours later. But how? I phoned my wife and asked her to send email. It would make no difference, ultimately.

Anyway. We were finally all on board and somehow made it up and away. I ended up next to a Frenchman clearly annoyed that he lost his business class seat from another flight. He cajoled a better dinner from the attendant and when the drink cart paused and she was turned away he looked at me, tugged his lower eyelid, and filched three splits of wine and tucked them into his seat. He offered me one, which I declined, to which he smilingly shrugged.

Across the aisle a Jewish child dropped some Israeli shekels and I retrieved them. The young mother would not accept them from my hand so I placed the coins on her tray. Gradually we settled down for the short false night of overseas flying.

In the haze of jet lag and sunrise the Jewish men clotted the aisles to do their morning prayers. Ablutions are required, so they lined up at the washrooms and then gathered in the spaces near the galleys to form minyans. Kerchief clad women still slept and children huddled against them. I could have sworn I heard a rooster or saw a goat.

Whatever lies ahead, it will not be like that. As ever, the worst experiences make the best stories. As I told my children on our way back from four months travel in early 2001, “Travel is hard; remembering is fun.” And it is.

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