Buenos Aires in the Spring…. So romantic but a really long way for a really short business trip! I just returned from my third tour of duty (translation: three-night stay). Still, it’s magic. Throngs of people hit the streets after work, the shops and restaurants buzz in the mild evening. After work I’d head to Calle Florida to mill with the masses. Sure I was by myself, but it’s not so tough to make contact and feel plugged in. American-style friendliness and consumerism are the keys to the city!
With the help of the hotel concierge I found an ace Japanese restaurant where they spoke Spanish, Japanese, and a tiny bit of Spanglish. We established a meal that I liked and I ordered it each night. Looking and sounding different made me memorable (perhaps also being a foot shorter and a few shades paler than the model-like Argentinean bathing beauties). At Subway I was the pan integral con pepinos, lechuga, y tomate (sin carne). At Zara we discussed the 30-day return policy (not likely!)
The most fun is the free gift from H Stern. Hotels tuck a little coupon into the key card holder or under the door for a little star-shaped charm. Many get a coupon, but few redeem. Sure, I know H Stern wants me to buy a diamond necklace. Me? I have a whole bracelet going.
Don’t be proud, be friendly! Talk to the concierge, frequent the same places and make contact. The timid aren’t wearing the lasso of the gaucho on their wrists, now are they?
It seems a lot of people have posted the 10 (or 20 or 500) top things they don’t like about what happens inside an airplane. For those of you who do not travel much, the broad brush strokes are that you board, take off, and land at your destination. The reality is a lot seamier. Sharing the flight with a few hundred strangers is a lot like running with the bulls: Pamplona seems a whole lot sunnier before the action heats up.
Sure, a flight attendant knocked me down (for absolutely no reason), and a kid kicked the back of my seat for six hours on a trip to Portugal. Yes, a woman behind me spoke loudly for four straight hours on a nighttime trans-Atlantic journey. True, we did land on time only to find out we were at another airport and wouldn’t be leaving to get to our destination for hours (that happened twice). People bring food that smells horrifying and use nail polish. The lavatories in economy get really disgusting. Uh oh. Now I’ve lost the “but.” I thought for sure there was a sunny side in here somewhere.
Being on an airplane is tough if the attendants and the passengers forget that we have become a little community for a few hours. Anger and disappointment get played out Tennessee Williams style. Stuff happens, but we sure can make it even worse by what we do.
Try doing a Gandhi: be the change you want to see on an airplane. And leave the garlic sandwich at home.
It’s 3 AM (it’s bound to be 3 AM somewhere), and there’s a noise that won’t stop. Before I can figure out what the noise is, I need to figure out where I am. Literally. So I start at the beginning. First, I am in a bed. It’s dark. It’s noisy. Right! I’m in a hotel and the fire alarm is going off! Excellent. Another mystery solved and I can go back to sleep. Except for the noise….
My first alarming hotel experience happened around midnight in Lisbon. One staff member and I kept company in the deserted lobby until the lights and noise calmed down. It must have been a self-extinguishing fire, as no one showed up to put it out. My second fire alarm wake-up call was the 3 AM in London. Eloquent yet firm pre-recorded announcements encouraged us to vacate the hotel. The elevators were out of service so I climbed down the stairs, raincoat over my nightie flasher-style, only to be greeted by my clients. All of them. They had managed to put clothes on. Now that would have been an idea. We gathered in the hotel lobby until all was declared safe and everyone had a chance to get a good look at my ensemble.
The last swagger downstairs was just before midnight in Philadelphia. An actual fireman showed up, validating the efforts of the ten or so hotel guests who huddled against the cold. Saved again from near sleep.
Wear something to bed and remember to make a P stop (for your pants, your parka, your passport, and your purse).
Well, sure we all do. You can’t really pack effectively without it. Just as supermarket cart contents reveals the real you to everyone in the checkout line, the luggage you drag through security says it all. Tumi says, “I have money and know quality.” Louis Vuitton says, “I have so much money and so much style I can afford to lose some” (when my luggage is rifled). Hard-sided, shiny silver drag bags say, “I’m too pretty to lift my own suitcase.” I carry a Baggu. It looks like a colorful Hefty bag, weighs nothing, can be washed and dried in a hotel sink in an hour, folds into a two-inch square, and can fit anything you can imagine. It says, “I have at least $6 and no pride.”
How about those road-warriors who pack all of their electronics and clothing into a computer roller bag? Sweet. Me? I cling to my secret weapon when in economy with no frequent flier status and barely a prayer of finding space in the overhead compartment: an ancient, tiny Delsey that is so small as to be invisible and voluminous enough to fit all of my clothes and work equipment for nearly a week. Duct tape really can hold anything together!
When choosing a carry-on roller bag, consider weight, dimensions, packing volume, durability, and color. It needs to fit your stuff, but it also must fit into the overhead of a small, full jet; otherwise the day will come when it gets checked in forcibly. When that time comes, it should be sturdy enough to survive baggage handling, and distinct enough to be recognizable at baggage claim. Maybe think about Travelpro, Briggs & Riley, maybe LL Bean or Eddie Bauer? Browse ebags.com, too.
My clients send me first class for both domestic and international flights. It makes more sense to have full meal service and arrive fresh, having slept on a flat-bed seat. They also approve limo service for speedy airport transfers and have baggage fees built-in to the expenses. We typically stay at four-star hotels only when five-star rooms are not available, but at least there is always a room upgrade. In-room dining and entertainment go right to the master bill.
Whoops. Sorry. Had to pick myself up from the floor and stop gasping for air. That was funny. No, the days of wine and roses appear to have come and gone. Being greeted with a bottle of Malbec in Buenos Aires and a crystal bud vase at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm are so yesterday (literally). No headlines are going to read, “3-fl-oz.com blogger found at the Ritz on client expense account.” Out with the luxuries and in with the shrinking airline seat and strange room odors.
Still, best not to look back. The aromatherapy masseuse at the Conrad in Brussels really could have had a firmer touch and, let’s face it, my skin was kind of red after the complimentary facial at Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe. No “Who Moved My Cheese” for me. Although it would have been mighty tasty with the Malbec…
Stay with one airline and definitely within their alliance to keep the possibility of upgrades alive. Use your miles judiciously, for longer trips. Bring a sleep mask and ear plugs everywhere to create a little sanctuary of your own.
FAQ: Do you get something everywhere you go, to remind you of the trip? Well, I get a little older and feel a little more tired, so, YES! Yes, I do.
It really is nice to bring something back from favorite trips. “Subtle elephants, very subtle,” I shouted over the crackly line from India, trying to tell my husband what the new table runner looked like. Jewelry is perhaps an easier option. Remember when gold was reasonable and silver was cheaper? No? If you were in Istanbul in the early Oughties you know what I mean. I wear a necklace my sister bought me as a souvenir back to Italy every year just so it can see its homeland.
Shopping with a mission is a way to purposefully explore a new city in a short time. A teensy pair of ballet flats from Hong Kong (teensy feet, teensy flats) got me out of the hotel and onto the street for two hours. Studying comparative anthropology through close examination of Zara and Mango abroad has netted some cool threads.
A gallery in Brussels sells whimsical prints on stretched canvases just small enough to fit into personal pizza boxes, which is exactly what they are packed in. I now wake each morning to a scrumptiously furry little critter who, eyes wide, tells me, “Ceci n’est pas un lapin.” No. No, he’s really not.
Remember to cut the tags off before you bring something home. It’s not new, it’s just yours (in case anyone asks…)
I choose travel reading material by weight. Lest you think I mean intellectual vigor, no: I mean heft. If Bazaar weighs less than Self, I’m self-less. Hardcovers? All reading material gets bounced like a newborn before receiving the nod. There is the danger of going too far to the edge with this thin lifestyle: My Life in Modern Times was a stunner, but so concise that it ran out of words before we could touch down in Tel Aviv.
The lightest, cheapest solutions mean that I save the slimmest magazines for trips (the September Issue is reserved for in-house use only). E-readers are welcome second sources of entertainment, but those Nooks, iPads, and Kindles are verboten during take-off and landing and impenetrable if they run out of juice. The Kindle-ster and I got into some strange positions in Turks & Caicos trying to pick up a wireless signal to catch my latest book select. My usually graceful sister stepped on hers in the Dominican Republic. Goodbye Columbus.
Entertainment quality may suffer and annoyance prevail with my approach to selecting reading material. Memorizing instructions on the back of the tray table has seemed more inviting than continuing reading the only English-language book available in a Munich gift shop. Ah well, the best-read plans…
Reading can sub for sight-seeing when work takes up the best part of the day: Under the Tuscan Sun and A Thousand Days in Venice were great reads when I was covering meetings in Italy. Want to be culturally relevant? Snag a Financial Times on the flight. Winner!!
I commute to Chicago on the big Greyhound in the sky. O’Hare Airport is like Hotel California: you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave. Choosing a plane back to the New York area is a bit like betting on the Kentucky Derby. Sudy the timetables, look at the odds of on-time arrival, make your best bet.
When you get to the Derby, I mean to ORD, you must carefully select which security line to pass through. Have status? Find the frequent flier line. No status? Bring a book. Once through security, the real race begins. You run from gate to gate to see which planes have left and which have the best chance of making it out before the coach turns into a pumpkin. Emotions run rapidly from exhilaration to dejection.
Work your frequent flier status. Even if no seats on earlier (delayed) flights are available yet, become an SBY (standby). When your final bet is in, booking in hand, you watch the Boards. Beyond that, a little shamelessness never hurt: eavesdrop and meet other travelers to see what they’ve heard, ask the gate agents for the low down every so often. A contact on the outside who can Google flight status and work the phones never hurt.
Don’t believe everything you hear about your flight. Sign up with the airline for flight status updates. Use your smart phone to see where your plane is coming from and how it is progressing. A plane on the ground is worth two in the air…
“How ya doing. Fine,” is a satisfying greeting in New York. Any passerby will surely respond to you in tandem, “Fine. You?” Hardly effusive, it does rely on reassuring cultural norms and rituals. All is well. Greeting currency has its own EuroZone, however. Nodding appears appropriately friendly in Boston’s Back Bay but reads as a neurological disorder in Madrid. Smiling at strangers in Paris is viewed as odd and, worse, peculiarly American. Bejing? Don’t smile. Really.
The cheerier among us shouldn’t lose heart, they should just go to Texas. I am considered abjectly dour in Texas when I merely make eye contact and smile. Texans are ready with baskets of warm muffins and I’m DOA. Cutting the airport security line in Houston to avoid missing my flight only got me a “Do what you have to do, miss” from the passenger I had wronged. Hawks and doves. Cut a line at La Guardia and you’ll see what I mean.
Striking the right note is no easy task. A sideways glance will do in Finland: there is no room for gratuitous good spirits at the Helsinki Inn. It may never rain in Southern California, but do not show up at an Angelenos home just because they invited you over any time (they didn’t mean it!) Feeling sad over the state of polite society? Go to Dublin where you’ll be hugging against the weather before religion and politics even come up.
Be a Readers’ Digest version of yourself. And make sure to finish everything on your plate when you are a guest in Cairo.
“But she has a ticket and there are seats. Can’t you let her stay?” An adjacent Amtrak ally pled my case, even though we both knew that vengeance would be swift and mercy out of the question. “Nope. You need to get off the train at the next stop.” An Accela exile, I phoned my sister. “They threw me off the train! They said I didn’t have the right ticket even though it was the same price and the same place.” “That happened to me! They threw me off too,” she exclaimed in solidarity. Perhaps only luddites have rail horror stories, but trippin’ is trippin’.
“This train has been canceled” was a popular British Rail tune back in the day. There we were on the last train to London from Nowhere-on-the-Heath England, when a strike action popped up. I have no words. Therapy was required to block out the hitchhiking and the three bus rides.
Have you been on the Last Metro (or maybe just seen the film)? I can do one better: I missed the last metro from Pigalle. Toulouse-Lautrec is not there anymore, but rest assured that the ladies of the evening remain. Years later, upon hearing this story, a motherly French scientist looked up to the heavens and mourned, “Mon dieu, if only I had known.”
These experiences apparently taught me little about strap-hanging. Traveling from a meeting in Montreux, a fellow passenger was kind enough to inform me that there would be a fee AND a hasty exit waiting for me because I had the wrong ticket. This dapper fellow happened to be getting off at the next stop, and so escorted me to the ticket window. Tickets in hand, he noted that the next train would not arrive for awhile and asked me out for a drink. Air travel is tough, but at least no one has handed me a line and told me to jump. Yet.
Trains in Switzerland are amazing. Nab a seat in the dining car for a white glove experience. Just be sure to get to the train exactly on time. Exactly.